New study reveals state of Juniata River watershed headwaters

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A new study from the USGS assesses water quality data for the Juniata River Basin in Western Blair County, Pennsylvania.

NEW CUMBERLAND, PA – The results of a 26-month water quality study on the headwater streams of the Juniata River watershed in Western Blair County Pennsylvania have recently been released. The aim of the study was to gather baseline data that could be used to determine if current and future exploration and development of natural gas mining will have an environmental impact on the watershed.

The U.S. Geological Survey conducted the study in cooperation with the Altoona Water Authority and the Blair County Conservation District from July 2011 through September 2013, and the findings were mostly positive.

“We have not detected impacts to surface-water quality from natural gas extraction activities in the study area,” said Dennis Low, U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologist and lead author of the study. “We rated water quality for most of the streams in the study as being acceptable.”

While the study concluded gas extraction is not currently having a negative impact, two other factors were identified that lowered the health and quality of some streams.

“There were three streams that had impacts that could affect aquatic life and water quality - most of that was from historic abandoned mine drainage,” said Low.

In addition to the drainage issue from abandoned mines, the USGS researchers also discovered a noticeable trend of road deicing salts influencing the streams during the winter months. Low said they detected spikes of high conductance water and changes in the water chemistry that occurred when conditions were favorable for the application and runoff of road salts.

While the Altoona and the Tyrone Water Authorities obtain their water from the Juniata River watershed, Low says the residents of Western Blair County have no cause for alarm. The headwater streams most effected by abandoned mine drainage and road salts are not used for water supply. Overall water quality in the study area was acceptable for aquatic life and did not exceed Environmental Protection Agency limits, said Low.

This study is useful to water resource managers because the results provide a baseline against which future changes can be compared.

James Eckenrode, a Watershed Specialist with the Blair County Conservation District, said this study will be an invaluable tool in the restoration and future protection of the streams in the Juniata River watershed.

The full report, “Physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of selected headwater streams along the Allegheny Front, Blair County, Pennsylvania, July 2011–September 2013,” is available online at https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/ofr20151173.