Saving Little Mahoning Creek
The Little Mahoning Creek watershed, located in northern Indiana County, is a unique and valuable resource in southwestern Pennsylvania. Despite being located in the heart of the bituminous coal region, Little Mahoning Creek largely dodged the devastating impacts of abandoned mine drainage.
Because of this and the area’s rural nature, the stream is home to an impressive list of freshwater mussel, fish, and aquatic insect species. It is also home to the eastern hellbender salamander. Little Mahoning Creek is classified by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection as a High Quality – Cold Water Fishery.
The Little Mahoning watershed is located in the Pittsburgh low plateau section, which is dominated by low-level upland features with elevations ranging from 660 – 1,700 feet. The mainstem flows into Mahoning Creek, which ultimately empties into the Allegheny River near Templeton, PA. Land uses in the watershed are dominated by agriculture and deciduous forests, comprising over 86.9% of the available land area. The remaining 13% is a combination of light industrial and residential uses. This is a sparsely populated region with the largest centers being Marion Center Borough (pop. 2,945); Smicksburg Borough (pop. 1,743); and Dayton Borough (pop. 2,302) based on 2000 US census data.
Recreational and Economic Value
In addition to its ecological significance, Little Mahoning Creek and the surrounding watershed has a measurable influence on the local economy, particularly with regard to tourism. The stream boasts one of the Commonwealth’s most popular special regulation fly fishing only areas. This 4.3 mile stretch of stream is regularly visited by anglers from across the country. The rest of the stream is a popular trout fishery open to all types of fishing tackle. It is heavily stocked with brown and brook trout by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and native brook trout populations exist within some headwater tributaries. Several other species of game fish live in the stream, and are sought by anglers throughout the year.
Near the confluence of Little Mahoning with Mahoning Creek lies the small town of Smicksburg. A large Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) community resides there, and a variety of local shops and tourist attractions abound throughout the area. This region is heavily visited by tourists across the country, which is depended upon to support the local economy. As part of this project, Freshwater Conservation Program staff is developing beneficial relationships with the Amish community, particularly Amish farmers.
Threats to the Watershed
Although this watershed remains relatively healthy, it is being increasingly threatened by erosion and sediment pollution from poor agricultural practices, poorly maintained dirt and gravel roads, and natural gas well drilling. In addition, the headwaters are experiencing percolation issues due to previously reclaimed surface mines, which is not allowing natural aquifers to replenish properly.
A complete visual and biological assessment was completed, which verified these assumptions. In completing the assessment, the entire watershed was walked by WPC scientists to complete a visual assessment. Additionally, comprehensive sampling of fish, mussels, aquatic insects, and the eastern hellbender salamander were completed. All of this collected information is being considered when selecting opportunities for restoration and protection projects.
Saving the Watershed
The ultimate goals of the project are to ensure that the stream maintains its high quality status, while over the longer term, reconnecting aquatic species with Mahoning Creek, and the Allegheny River. Prior to industrialization, these resources were naturally connected throughout the region.
A variety of restoration approaches are being utilized to improve the stream’s water quality and aquatic habitat. The Freshwater Conservation Program is working closely with the agricultural community to implement best management practices on farms directly impacting the stream. Collaboration with local municipalities is underway to stabilize and improve drainage on dirt and gravel roads. Projects are underway with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to improve permeability and wildlife habitat on Game Lands previously surface mined and reclaimed. Coordination with the natural gas industry has begun to pinpoint well sites negatively impacting waterways. Finally, work has commenced with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to restore unstable and eroding streambanks, while creating in-stream fish habitat.
A variety of best management practices will be used to repair the watershed. Some of those include:
- Streambank fencing
- Stabilized cattle and equipment crossings and alleyways
- Cover crops planted after harvest
- Stream corridor plantings
- Vegetated stream buffers
- Stabilized dirt and gravel roads
- Roadway drainage structures
- Natural stream channel restoration
- Conservation easements
Educating a Community
The significance of the Little Mahoning Creek watershed is largely unknown by those who live and play there. To best ensure the long-term protection of this unique resource, it is critical for local citizens and stakeholders to take responsibility for it’s protection.
The Freshwater Conservation Program is undertaking an extensive education and outreach effort in the watershed community, starting with school-aged children. Working the Marion Center Area School District, students will be introduced to the project as early as third grade. As they progress in grade, their involvement in the project will increase through science classes, as will the complexity of the issues they will be introduced to. In addition to this, general outreach will be conducted with the local community and those who recreate in the watershed. Other educational partners include Indiana Area School District and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Using this comprehensive approach to educating the community, we believe that significant increases in awareness will occur within a five-year period, and grow incrementally over the next ten to twenty years. As part of this, we hope to reinvigorate the Little Mahoning Creek Watershed Association, who would ultimately lead the protection effort for the long-term.
A comprehensive project of this magnitude requires the involvement and commitment of many partners. The current list of partners includes:
- Pittsburgh Zoo
- PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
- Indiana County Conservation District
- USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
- Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission
- Pennsylvania Game Commission
- Marion Center Area School District
- Indiana University of Pennsylvania
- Ken Sink Chapter of Trout Unlimited
- Evergreen Conservancy
- Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement
- Local municipalities
- Colcom Foundation
- Mellon Family Foundation
- Blazosky and Associates