Penn. river endangered

Laurel Hill Creek is a major source of clean drinking water and an ideal whitewater rafting spot; now it's among the top 10 on this year’s list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. The stream has been nominated by the national advocacy non-profit group American Rivers and its partners, and is the seventh river on the list in America’s Most Endangered Rivers: 2009 edition, after the Saluda River in South Carolina, which took sixth place on a similar scale.

“Excessive water withdrawals and increased industrial activity in the region, among other factors, such as a growing tourist industry, have led to such critical damage,” said Liz Garland, associate director of American Rivers' Clean Water Program.

Located in the small town of Confluence, Somerset County, in southeastern Pennsylvania, Laurel Hill Creek flows into the Youghiogheny watershed, from where most water is withdrawn for ski resorts and hotels that speckle the scenic region.

According to an article in The Tribune Democrat, development plans in the borough indicate the construction of about 1200 condominiums extended from the resorts, two golf courses, and a bottling facility that may withdraw as much as up to 108,000 gallons per day.

A major indicator in the deterioration of Laurel Hill Creek is its drastically decelerated flow rate, said Garland.

“The effects could be really dramatic,” said Garland. “Here we have a river went from a normal flow of roughly 270 cubic feet per second to seeing flows as low as 2.5 cubic feet per second, and this is not going to be sustainable,” she said.

Another sign that points toward the ill health of Laurel Hill Creek is the condition of the aquatic life in the recesses of this stream. “A low level of flow causes the water temperature to fall, creating an adverse environment for the trout, which are a key component of Laurel Hill Creek,” said Garland.

Laurel Hill Creek is also a significant economic contributor in the region due to its status as a recreation and tourism hotspot, which means that its ailing condition can affect the standards of living of the surrounding communities.

Student-based environmental groups in Pittsburgh also expressed concern about the possible extinction of a river so close to home.

At the verge of wipeout, Laurel Hill Creek serves as an omen of excessive consumption, said sophomore civil & environmental engineering and modern languages double major Daisy Wang, event coordinator and president-elect of Sustainable Earth, Carnegie Mellon’s flagship environmental club.

“Personally, this issue reminds me of how the continual growth of human consumption takes a larger and larger toll on our home, the Earth,” said Wang.

“While some of the human activity which is damaging the Laurel Hill Creek is not completely frivolous [such as the demand for fuel], we will surely reach a breaking point if we as people cannot find a balance between our need to consume and our limited resources,” she said.

Krissy Kasserman, who heads the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper organization with the Mountain Watershed Association, stated in an e-mail, “The issues in this watershed aren't as much a result of the actions of ordinary citizens, but rather that of several large businesses or municipalities withdrawing water.”

She does believe that student environmental groups can contribute by promoting wise water consumption on campus and get involved in demanding pro-environmental policy.

“Students can follow the action alert on the American Rivers website, which calls on Secretary John Hanger of the PA DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] to designate LHC a 'critical water planning area' and offer guidance to water managers and planners in the watershed to help direct future use,” she stated in the e-mail.

The importance of this river in particular, and the local ecosystem in general, is not just limited to Pennsylvania, but is of universal interest, said Wang.

Sustainable Earth treasurer Sarah Strano, a junior engineering & public policy and civil & environmental engineering double major, is in full agreement.

“We get a lot of our water from surface waters like rivers; drawing water out at a rate faster than it is replenished is inherently unsustainable. If they are too polluted and depleted to drink, we'll have big problems,” said Strano.

Consulting local representatives about the preservation of Laurel Hill Creek could possibly top Sustainable Earth’s upcoming agenda, said Strano.

“We can talk to our representatives and tell them that we don't support the destruction of the river. Sustainable Earth has advocated a lot for action on climate change, and we could possibly tackle this issue in the future,” she said.

“Policy work is great for students to get involved in,” said Garland.

Other practices that students can advocate to their school administrations include efficient management of water infrastructure, more funding for green infrastructure, and strengthening the community’s ability to manage water resources by taking small steps toward water conservation, such as preventing wasteful consumption of nature’s most important source of livelihood, she said.