Celebrating progress on Pennsylvania's Kettle Creek

CROSS FORK, Pa. -- They don’t come much more opposite than a Caterpillar D-11R bulldozer and the Eastern brook trout.

One is massive and powerful, an exhaust-belching monstrosity weighing more than 100 tons and capable of literally moving mountains.

The other is tiny and beautiful, a natural work of art capable of inspiring people to move mountains.

Here in the mountains of Northcentral Pennsylvania they are intertwined.

On a recent warm morning, I watched in awe as two of those giant bulldozers pushed tons of soil mixed with alkaline materials as part of a massive abandoned mine drainage (AMD) reclamation project on a 100-acre tract at the head of the Huling Branch, a tiny feeder to Twomile Run, a historically imperiled Kettle Creek tributary.

The project is among the latest in a monumental collaborative effort to improve the health of the Kettle Creek watershed.

Obtrusive as those bulldozers may be, the work they are doing eventually will benefit brook trout.


Fifteen years of effort


In fact, that kind of work has been under way for the past 15 years in the area, and the efforts are paying off.

Tributaries once lifeless due to AMD have recovered to the point where they once again are home to wild, native brook trout.

There is a ways to go, but the improvement is striking.

The mainstem of Kettle Creek flows for 43 miles through the steep mountains of Tioga and Potter counties, eventually meeting the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Clinton County.

Most of the land in the 245-square-mile watershed is publicly owned, and the area has long been a popular sportsman’s paradise, one where countless camps draw in hunters and anglers by the tens of thousands during peak seasons.

Kettle Creek proper has been a popular stocked trout stream, and remains one. Many of Kettle Creek’s small tributaries not impacted by AMD are Class A and wild trout streams.

Trout Unlimited has been working closely with the Kettle Creek Watershed Association since soon after the association formed in 1997.

The team, with assistance from many other groups, has spearheaded dozens of projects, big and small.

Through 2013, the price tag of restoration efforts totaled $6.5 million, the cost covered by funding from multiple sources, including from government entities and from philanthropic grants.

The Huling Branch reclamation project will cost $12.2 million, covered by funding from the Department of Environmental Protection.


A team effort


Many of the key players in the efforts over the year were at the Huling Branch project site on a tour that was part of a celebration of the 15 years of restoration efforts in the Kettle Creek watershed.

In addition to AMD sites, our group also checked out fish habitat projects in Kettle Creek and its tributaries, as well as visiting areas that could be the site of future habitat projects.

Between tours we broke for lunch in Cross Fork, more than 80 of us jamming into Deb’s Place, a homey bar/restaurant just off Kettle Creek.

After lunch TU’s Amy Wolfe presented awards of appreciation and framed TU prints to a number of the effort’s key players.

David Keller and Dr. Bob Hedin were honored for technical guidance while David McIntyre was praised for his volunteer commitment to fish habitat improvement efforts.

Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, and Pamela Milavec both were honored for above-and-beyond support of Kettle Creek restoration efforts, while KCWA leaders Richard Sodergren and James Dubisz both earned awards for their leadership.

Afterward, the KCWA surprised Wolfe with a print -- of a wild wolf -- and “The Most Outstanding Award of All Time.”

Wolfe, TU’s Eastern Abandoned Mine Program and PA Eastern Brook Trout Habitat Initiative Director, has been involved with the project since its inception.

She was visibly touched by the gesture of gratitude.


Varied approaches


In addition to surface site reclamation, another approach to restoring AMD impacted streams is to install passive treatment systems.

At the Swamp Area passive treatment system, Hedin, of the consulting firm Hedin Environmental, explained how the settling pond systems utilize a series of ponds through which water passes, limestone and organic compost in the pools helping to remove acidity.

On average, the Swamp Area system removes 240 pounds of acidity per day.

At the bottom of the series of settling ponds, the water runs into a wetland, where frogs enjoying the healthy wetland environment croaked contentedly.

Driving back down the mountain Hedin asked the bus driver to stop atop a culvert where Huling Branch flows into Twomile Run.

The streambed through which Huling Branch flowed was iron orange, the discoloration an obvious indication of the creek’s imperiled condition.

Above the confluence, Twomile Run had the appearance of a healthy Appalachian trout stream, which it now is, to a large degree.

The lower stretch is not there yet.

But it soon will be.

Aquatic insects will come back first, the wild brook trout not far behind.




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