Thanks to Cleanup Efforts, the Future of Wells Creek Looks Good

By Thurman Korns, President, Wells Creek Watershed Association
December 10, 2006

Wells Creek is a cold water stream situated in Somerset Township and also part of Stonycreek Township and Quemahoning Township in Somerset County. It has two points of origin. The west branch begins in the village of Geiger and flows north east about two miles to where it joins the east branch, which originates in the village of Pleasant Hill. From there it flows north through the villages of Listie, Adams, Friedens and Coleman and then on to the village of Mostoller where it joins the Stonycreek River. It is about nine miles in length, and has a drainage area of about 17 square miles. It has a low gradient and for the most part, flows through bottom land, that is in some areas lightly forested. In other areas, it is shaded with willows and other riparian shrubs and brush. After it leaves Coleman it is largely shaded by forest.

Wells Creek was undoubtedly a vibrant trout stream prior to the 20th century. However, with the increasing demand for bituminous coal coupled with the abundance of it in the Wells Creek valley, the stream quickly became polluted with acid mine drainage to the point where it was dead. Five major mining operations drained their untreated discharges into Wells Creek. There were several other smaller operations that also used Wells Creek as a disposal system for their drainage. In addition, most homes and businesses located along the stream used Wells Creek as a sewage disposal system. The stream was an open sewer for its entire length. In 1970 the Somerset Township Municipal Authority was formed, and in 1974-75 sewers were installed from near the Somerset Borough line to a new sewage plant at the northernmost point in the township. This sewage system eliminated almost all of the raw sewage that had been entering Wells Creek.

Twenty-four years later, the Wells Creek Watershed Association was formed by a few interested men in Listie. Some members of the Association had been stocking trout in the stream at Listie for several years, but they had to feed them since the stream could not support a food source due to AMD pollution. The Association submitted a grant application to Growing Greener for funding to design a passive treatment system at Pleasant Hill to treat three discharges emanating from the old workings of the "Big 7" mine that had been operated by the Listie Coal Mining Company in the early 20th century. After the grant was received, the Association constructed weirs on the discharges and began sampling the water to determine the extent of the pollution. They then applied to Growing Greener and the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) for grants to construct the system. This involved dealing with landowners to get easements to construct the systems. After much negotiating, the easements were acquired.

In the meantime the Association conducted a membership drive which brought the membership up to more than 100. They also elected new officers and applied for a design grant from Growing Greener for two treatment systems to treat major discharges in the vicinity of the village of Adams Station and again, the negotiations with landowners ensued; one lived in Delaware and all negotiations were conducted over the telephone. After much negotiation, all the easements were obtained. All the grants which were applied for, were approved and the DEP office in Ebensburg designated Wells Creek as a priority watershed. It was one of only two in the region. The other was Black Lick Creek in Indiana county.

After the designs were completed, the permitting process began. The two projects at Adams were approved without much trouble but the project at Pleasant Hill was another story. One of the discharges at that site flowed onto what had been a baseball field and had formed a wetland with cattails growing in it. This forced the association to have the wetland delineated and assessed for endangered species. A grant of $10,000 was secured from Western Pennsylvania Watershed Protection Program (which later became the Western Pennsylvania Watershed Program) by Southern Alleghenies Conservancy (the 501(c)(3) sponsor of the projects) to do the delineation and assessment. That brought in the division of the Department of Environmental Protection that deals with wetlands, which brought in the Army Corp. of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service. It was determined that that there were several wetlands involved, one probably as small as 150 square feet. After many meetings and correspondence with the regulating agencies, a waiver on the wetlands was granted, and construction began in November of 2003. At this writing, the treatment systems have been built and are operating, for the most part, as planned.

The total cost of the three projects was in excess of $800,000. The funds were provided by Growing Greener, OSM, and Western Pennsylvania Watershed Protection Program. In addition, Growing Greener gave the association a grant to organize the operation of the association.

Wells Creek, although it will now support aquatic life is not completely cleaned up. There are two identified AMD discharges remaining to be addressed. One known as the Beeghly mine discharge is located upstream from the confluence above Listie on the east branch. It is a seasonal flow but has low pH when it does flow. The other discharge is downstream near the village of Coleman and is known as the Ritter Mine Discharges (there are two of them). The association is now monitoring both sites and plans to address these pollution sources in the near future. When all the major discharges are neutralized, Wells Creek will be the stream that it was over 100 years ago.

The stream was stocked with trout in both 2004 and 2005 and is planned to be stocked again in 2006. In addition, stream cleanups have been conducted when and where trouble spots were identified. Wells Creek was also joined with Kimberly Run Natural Area which is owned by the Somerset County Conservancy in an effort to educate the public, especially young people, in the benefits to be derived from having a clean and healthy environment. In the 1930's and 40's there were several avid fishermen in the Adams and Listie areas who believed that the day would come when trout would live in Wells Creek. That day has come. The future for Wells Creek looks very good.

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