June is Rivers Month in Pennsylvania and the Somerset Conservation District is embarking on an analysis and study of one of Somerset County’s smallest, but perhaps most unique watersheds. The district received a Coldwater Heritage grant to create a Coldwater Conservation Plan for the North Fork of Bens Creek watershed located along the western slope of the Laurel Ridge in northern Somerset County.
The North Fork and its even smaller tributaries have been mostly unencumbered by man’s negative impacts unlike the downstream waters that the North Fork is a tributary of such as the main stem of Bens Creek and the Stonycreek River.
According to Greg Shustrick, watershed specialist for the district, “The North Fork is one of our near natural waters. All the smaller tributaries are designated as Exceptional Value by the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection and the tributaries as well as the North Fork contain a highly diverse macroinvertebrate community as well as populations of wild trout.”
Unlike other waterways in the region that have fluctuating water quality and fish and insect life the North Fork has maintained its high level of all of these water quality indicators over a long period of time.
The North Fork’s sister stream, the South Fork of Bens Creek, starts out very much the same with good populations of aquatic insects and wild trout. However, the downstream reaches of the South Fork have had its bouts with intrusions such as abandoned mine drainage (AMD) pollution. So far the North Fork has escaped these impediments.
A primary reason the North Fork watershed is less impaired is that about three quarters of the watershed is owned by the Greater Johnstown Water Authority (GJWA) and the remainder is either Pa. Game Commission State Game Lands or part of Laurel Ridge State Park.
With that in mind the district is working on the project in cooperation with the GJWA, Mountain Laurel Chapter of Trout Unlimited and state agencies such as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pa. Fish and Boat Commission.
The project will include analysis of not only the current status of the watershed, but potential threats such as water use and consumption, thermal impacts, nutrient loading as well as natural gas extraction in the coming years.
Although downstream waters such as the Stonycreek River have received much attention, improvement and acclaim in recent years the best water quality in the region is found in the headwater streams such as the North Fork. As Shustrick points out, “The North Fork provides us a measure as to how far our downstream resources have to still improve to reach their true potential.”
Another unique characteristic of this only 12 square mile watershed is what is contained within it. There are game lands, a state park, four historic 19th Century cemeteries, a golf course and country club, a water reservoir, historical structures and Johnstown’s oldest and still active sportsmen’s club all with the watershed boundaries.
“The North Fork watershed is a real life example of how man’s needs and uses can coexist with nature without either detracting from the other,” Shustrick said.