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Hydrologic characteristics and water quality of headwater streams and wetlands at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, Summit area, Blair and Cambria Counties, Pennsylvania, 2014–16

October 2, 2018

The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site (ALPO) in Blair and Cambria Counties, Pennsylvania, protects historic features of the first railroad portage over the Allegheny Front and the first railroad tunnel in the United States. This report, which was completed by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the National Park Service, summarizes water resources in the headwaters of the Blair Gap Run and Bradley Run watersheds at the ALPO Summit area during 2014–16. These new baseline data fill an existing gap in knowledge and may be helpful to evaluate potential changes in the hydrologic characteristics of streams and associated wetlands at the Summit area.

Results of synoptic water-quality surveys and continuous stage records at two streamgages near the headwaters of Blair Gap Run and Bradley Run indicate that the headwater streams of the ALPO Summit area are perennial but have different water-quality characteristics. The water sampled in the headwaters of Blair Gap Run had pH that ranged from acidic to near neutral, combined with elevated concentrations of dissolved solids, mainly sulfate, chloride, and sodium. These characteristics can be attributed to drainage from legacy coal mines and runoff from nearby roads treated with deicing salt. More than once during the study, the chloride and associated contaminant concentrations in tributaries of Blair Gap Run exceeded chronic thresholds for protection of freshwater aquatic organisms. In contrast, the water quality at tributaries of Bradley Run in the Summit area was characterized by near-neutral pH and relatively low concentrations of dissolved constituents, which met criteria for protection of freshwater aquatic life. By comparison, the deep groundwater discharged as abandoned mine drainage to Sugar Run from the Argyle Stone Bridge Mine, which underlies the Summit area, had acidic pH and elevated concentrations of sulfate and metals, which exceeded chronic and acute thresholds for aquatic life.

Data on shallow groundwater levels in piezometers at two wetlands in the Summit area, which were monitored during spring through fall of 2016, indicate downward hydraulic gradients (higher water level in shallow piezometer than in deeper piezometer) and potential for local groundwater recharge during rainfall events, particularly in the summer and fall seasons. The wetlands in the upland area (wetland 3, at altitude 2,370 feet NAVD 88) near the divide between Blair Gap Run and Bradley Run between the Lemon House and Picnic Area, exhibited a consistent downward gradient from spring through fall of 2016. The associated surface seepage at wetland 3 dried up in the summer of 2016. In contrast, the wetlands in the adjoining valley (wetland 6, at altitude 2,198 feet NAVD 88) in the northwestern Summit area exhibited upward hydraulic gradients in the spring and produced continuous seepage. Despite downward gradients during summer and fall, the seepage associated with wetland 6 sustained perennial conditions in the Bradley Run drainage through the summer of 2016.

Differences in groundwater altitudes and associated water quality among the surface water, shallow groundwater, and deep groundwater in the Summit area imply that the surface water and shallow groundwater in the Summit area could recharge the groundwater of the underlying coal mines. Seasonally upward and downward vertical gradients in the near-surface soil and bedrock at wetland 6, and unimpaired water quality in the Bradley Run headwaters, are consistent with a perched water table and local hydrology that is influenced by local recharge. Persistent downward gradients and impaired water quality at wetland 3 and the adjacent headwaters seeps and tributaries of Blair Gap Run could be attributed to subsidence and drainage from shallow coalbeds (Upper Freeport, seam E) and associated mine workings in that area; however, the underlying deep coal mine pool (Lower Kittanning, seam B), which is hundreds of feet below the surface, does not appear to affect the hydrologic characteristics of the headwater streams and wetlands in the Summit area.