Center for Watershed Stewardship Focuses on Spruce Creek

UNIVERSITY PARK – More than 30 graduate students from five Penn State graduate programs over the last six years worked to restore and improve parts of the Spruce Creek watershed in central Pennsylvania.

The efforts were part of an intercollege program through the university’s Center for Watershed Stewardship, explained Lysle Sherwin, head of the center, which is based in the colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Arts and Architecture. “A fundamental value of watersheds that people overlook is that healthy watersheds reflect healthy communities,” he said.

“We tend to want to put economic benefits and resource-conservation outcomes into separate categories, but it is all tied together. Watersheds are connected to our communities, and stewardship of water and related resources is good for everyone, not just the fish.”

The Spruce Creek watershed, located on the border between Centre and Huntingdon counties, is a network of 140 miles of designated high-quality, cold-water fishery streams. In spite of this “special protection” classification, 21 miles of the watershed had been determined by the state Department of Environmental Protection as having impaired water quality in 2003 when the stewardship project began.

Growing regional populations, increased land development and nearby agricultural activities led to sedimentation and nutrient input problems within the watershed, Sherwin noted, resulting in the impairment of three miles of Halfmoon Creek, 16 miles of Warriors Mark Run, and two miles of Spruce Creek.

The Center for Watershed Stewardship oversaw a project to assess and improve the three impaired miles of Halfmoon Creek. An interdisciplinary team of students conducted fieldwork, and after the assessment, graduate students implemented follow-up restoration work.

Halfmoon Creek is located farthest upstream in the watershed drainage area and has the widest impact on the watershed. Sherwin pointed out that Halfmoon Creek’s subwatershed also has seen intense residential development in recent years, adding to degraded stream banks, erosion, sedimentation issues and insufficient riparian buffers.

In 2003, students compiled data about the watershed’s current and historical state and conducted biological and chemical monitoring to further quantify the water-quality impairment. Using computer modeling of non-point source runoff, riparian buffer condition evaluation and other watershed-assessment tools, they determined that five of the six Halfmoon Creek monitoring sites also could be classified as severely degraded trout habitats, explained Sherwin.

The following year, students examined indicators such as temperature, trout embryo survival and drinking-water-well test results of local residences. Students worked to develop stewardship goals and a management plan, which defined priority areas and proposed restoration projects.

Following the center’s Spruce Creek watershed assessment, three Growing Greener grants helped to fund several restoration projects. Helped by local volunteers, students planted a 600-foot riparian buffer on the Weaver Forest stretch of Halfmoon Creek owned by Penn State. Three farms adjacent to the Weaver Forest tract have since joined efforts to improve the half-mile stretch of creek shared by the four properties.

Restoration efforts have continued. During the fall of 2007, owners of one of the three farm properties, the Johnston Farm, carried out a stream-bank stabilization and trout habitat improvement project, and students from the center designed and implemented a riparian buffer. Downstream, log vanes, mudsills and other natural features were installed in the creek and riparian species were planted along the Gates family farm and Weaver Forest segments.

After several seasons these measures have already produced results, according to Sherwin. Cleaner stream substrate and deeper, narrower streambeds are promising successes. “A major aspect of our success comes from addressing four connected properties,” he said. “Taking a concentrated effort and focusing in one area is more beneficial to improving a degraded stream than the approach of a little bit here and there over a vast landscape.”

The projects have piqued local interest, Sherwin said.

“Landowners along the streams are seeing that they can facilitate beneficial changes to become better stewards of their land,” he said.

Future projects with other landowners in the area are being planned, and Sherwin is optimistic that the center’s Keystone Projects will continue to benefit Pennsylvania by improving degraded waters and giving students a unique graduate-education experience in applied, “real-world” problem-solving.

Halfmoon Creek restoration efforts are a partnership of the Center, private landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California University of Pennsylvania Partners for Fish and Wildlife, Centre County Conservation District and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Project reports, field data and other information from the Center for Watershed Stewardships’ Spruce Creek project are available online.

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