Conservation

Mine Drainage Cleanup in Pennsylvania: Perseverance pays off in the Potts Run watershed  

By Rachel Kester  

As a college intern at the Clearfield County Conservation District, I first sampled Potts Run in the summer of 2002 as part of an assessment of Clearfield Creek, a tributary to the West Branch Susquehanna River in northcentral Pennsylvania.   

Potts Run sticks in my mind because after spending all summer sampling streams degraded by abandoned mine drainage and completely devoid of life, it was exciting to find a stream that had at least a few tolerant macroinvertebrate species present despite the AMD influences.   

I remember thinking that if any streams in the Clearfield Creek watershed could be restored, Potts Run was one of them. It had relatively good water quality, intact habitat, and at least some aquatic life. But funding was limited, so in-depth sampling was focused on other more severely degraded streams.   

I headed back to college that fall not really giving Potts Run a second thought, but now knowing that I wanted to pursue a career in watershed restoration.   

Fast forward a decade, and my husband and I bought a home just one mile from the mouth of Potts Run. I hadn’t been to the stream or thought much about it since my college days, but here I was, now working for Trout Unlimited and exploring the woods and streams around my new home.  

Rachel Kester’s son, Owen, and dog, Gus, search for macroinvertebrates and other critters in Potts Run last summer. (Photo by Rachel Kester)

We hiked, we fished, and we soon came to realize that Potts Run was not meeting its full potential as a wild brook trout fishery. There seemed to be areas of the stream where trout were thriving, but there were also several abandoned deep mine discharges that were polluting Potts Run in its lower reaches.   

Fortunately, my supervisor, Amy Wolfe, happens to be an AMD restoration expert, after spending her early career at TU restoring trout to Twomile Run as part of the Kettle Creek Home Rivers Initiative.  

Amy encouraged me to pursue funding to assess Potts Run and develop a restoration plan.   

Over the next several years, we partnered with local landowners, state and federal agencies, private funders, and the county conservation district to perform water sampling, macroinvertebrate surveys, habitat assessments and fishery surveys. This assessment culminated in an AMD restoration plan for the Potts Run watershed.   

TU’s contractor spreads crushed limestone with a high calcium carbonate content on the Potts Run No. 3 project site to neutralize acidity and help prevent leaching of heavy metals from the coal refuse into the stream. (Photo by Rachel Kester)

The Potts Run No. 3 Mine complex, abandoned in the 1950s, was identified as a priority for restoration as it contributes high levels of acid and aluminum to Potts Run, degrading just over 3 miles of stream. We hired an engineer and set to work designing a treatment system that would remove the mine drainage and restore Potts Run to a thriving brook trout fishery.  

Over the next few years, I pursued multiple grants – state, federal, private – to no avail. Funding for AMD cleanup was dwindling, and it looked as though we would never get funding to build the treatment system.   

Finally, late last summer, we were awarded $1.2 million from Pennsylvania’s share of the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Economic Development Pilot Program.   

I was thankful and overjoyed, but there was one caveat – the money had to be spent by the end of May 2019. Building a nearly 4-acre treatment system in less than a year is a daunting task, but I talked it over with Amy and we decided to go for it.  

Now, here we are in the middle of winter in the Pennsylvania mountains with snow and ice blanketing the landscape. Winter held off long enough that we were able to get much of the Potts Run No. 3 treatment system constructed this past fall and we’re on track to complete it by the May deadline.   

 

Fishery surveys revealed that native brook trout are present in many areas of the Potts Run watershed. Once AMD restoration activities are complete, these populations should be able to expand as they utilize restored habitat. (Photo by Kelly Williams)

Our experience cleaning up AMD in Kettle Creek has shown that it won’t be long after the treatment system goes online that we can expect a response in the bug and trout populations. Since there are multiple tributaries containing wild brook trout, I suspect that within a year or two, we will see the trout population take off.   

We’ll be conducting post-construction monitoring to see how the stream (and trout) recover, so stay tuned. And if you ever find yourself passing through this part of Pennsylvania, hit me up and I’ll be glad to show you around my home waters.  

Rachel Kester is a project coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Pennsylvania Coldwater Habitat Program. She can be reached at rachel.kester@tu.org