Improving Watersheds Helps Drinking Water (And Reduces Flooding)

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A creek
A creek
Photo credit: Bob Williams from Pixabay

Along with improving drinking water and reducing flooding, healthy waterways can boost property values and lead to recreational areas where people are healthier.

A watershed area is the land that drains to one stream, lake or river, and affects the quality of the water there. When it rains or snow melts, some of the water remains in the ground and helps to recharge groundwater aquifers. A little bit of the water evaporates. The rest makes its way into a local stream.

The area where water makes its way into Chartiers Creek is part of the Chartiers Creek watershed. Chartiers Creek forms just south of Washington, PA, wanders north and empties into the Ohio River near Pittsburgh, making the creek part of the Ohio River watershed.

A lot of the water that people in the county drink comes from Chartiers Creek, the Mon or the Ohio River. The cleaner the water is when it flows into those waterways, the less it costs to turn it into drinkable water. Cleaner creeks and rivers could save consumers money.

Some of the water that flows past your house winds up in the drinking water source

Jennifer Dann, Treasurer, Washington County Watershed Alliance

When thousands of dead fish were found in Chartiers Creek, the Washington County Watershed Alliance (WCWA) reached out to residents for reports of fish kills. The state did the testing. While a herbicide or pesticide is suspected, the cause remains under investigation.

Creeks in the county feed local lakes like Cross Creek Lake, Canonsburg Lake and Dutch Fork Lake, which lend themselves to outdoor recreation. Spending two hours a week in greenspaces leads to better health, according to a study reported by the Yale School of the Environment. Without healthy watersheds there are fewer outdoor recreation sites.

Flooding can be reduced by flood plain restorations that give the creeks more room to hold water during heavy rains. Built up sediments are removed from the stream banks and stream bank erosion is reduced. It’s an area the alliance “is looking to get more involved in,” WCWA President Sam Carroll said. They can accomplish several goals with flood plain restoration projects. “When we do a flood plain restoration project, it helps with habitat creation for wildlife, enhancement of water quality and creation of wetlands,” Carroll added.

Healthy watersheds can lead to higher property values. When the stream banks are high – filled with sediment – and they’re eroding, the streams meander. They can move across property lines. Stable streams increases property values.

Alliance Activities

The Washington County Watershed Alliance is a nonprofit organization that handles administrative tasks for its member watershed groups, freeing the volunteers to put their efforts into protecting and improving their watersheds. The alliance also provides support for members.

  • Water quality monitoring tells the story of how healthy Washington County’s creeks are. Monitoring is ongoing in Chartiers Creek. “We go out twice a year and look at the chemicals and bugs in the stream and see how healthy the watershed is,” Carroll said.
  • Active watershed associations in the county schedule regular trash cleanups. The number of cleanups depends on the association. Two to three cleanups a year are scheduled throughout the county.
  • The alliance does education and outreach concerning streams and wildlife.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench into projects over the last year and a half.

  • Before the pandemic, WCWA finished monitoring streams at 25 sites in the county. They have years worth of data to assess to see how the watersheds have changed over time.
  • WCWA plans to purchase more stream monitors and install them in creeks throughout the county. They’ll use a new, less expensive stream monitor called a Mayfly Data Logger.
  • A lot of trees will be planted next to streams in spring 2022. WCWA will give away free tree seedlings in partnership with the Keystone 10 Million Trees Project.
  • WCWA plans to give away free rain barrels next spring. Rain barrels collect water when it rains, allowing it to be used when it isn’t raining – less water enters a watershed at its peak, reducing flooding.

Alliance Members

The Washington County Watershed Alliance consists of six active watershed associations in the western half of Washington County.

  • Buffalo Creek Watershed Association is the steward of a rural watershed – half the land is used for agriculture and half is forested. The association is studying the presence and number of varieties of mussels in the creek. They’re working to improve the recreational aspects of Dutch Fork Lake.
  • Chartiers Creek Watershed Association is responsible for the most urbanized watershed in the county. Sprawling development, agricultural runoff, industrial contamination and acid mine drainage are concerns. Mine drainage is especially monitored after hard rains when the water leeches materials out of the rock that can damage fish.
  • Cross Creek Watershed Association is an active but small group of volunteers. Years ago they completed a stream stabilization project. They planted historically native species of trees near the Meadowcroft Rockshelter.
  • Independence Conservancy (Raccoon Creek Watershed Association) is responsible for abandoned mines that affect water quality. A treatment system processes the water from an abandoned mine to remove iron, aluminum and manganese. They clean up illegal dumping, including tires.
  • Ten Mile Creek Watershed Association stewards an agricultural watershed. Concerns revolve around ag runoff, failing septic systems and wastewater systems. They education people about better practices – for instance, installing fences to keep farm animals away from streams, where they can erode stream banks.
  • Upper Wheeling Creek Watershed Association is looking for people to join them in monitoring, maintaining and improving the water quality of the watershed.

The watershed associations can do more if more people volunteer. Interested? Email or phone WCWA from their website.

Conclusion

The waterways in Washington County are part of the Mississippi River watershed, the largest watershed in the U.S. Washington County is the headwaters of the Ohio River, which feeds the Mississippi. “We’re sending everything downstream. Every single person, every single town is adding to it. It’s the additive effect of all those things coming together,” Dann said.

It matters to the people who live downstream from the creeks of Washington County and it matters here. Clean watersheds improve drinking water supplies, reduce flooding, provide healthy recreational areas and can increase property values.

Watershed associations that form the watershed alliance work on these six creeks