Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of selected headwater streams along the Allegheny Front, Blair County, Pennsylvania, July 2011–September 2013

February 29, 2016

The Altoona Water Authority (AWA) obtains all of its water supply from headwater streams that drain western Blair County, an area underlain in part by black shale of the Marcellus Formation. Development of the shale-gas reservoirs will require new access roads, stream crossing, drill-pad construction, and pipeline installation, activities that have the potential to alter existing stream channel morphology, increase runoff and sediment supply, alter streamwater chemistry, and affect aquatic habitat. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with Altoona Water Authority and Blair County Conservation District, investigated the water quality of 12 headwater streams and biotic health of 10 headwater streams.

Channel morphology was characterized at 10 of 12 stream sites using 500-foot (minimum) longitudinal profiles, four cross-sections each, and pebble counts. Channel slopes ranged from 0.008 in Poplar Run near Newry to 0.045 in Mill Run. In general, streams draining watersheds of 5 square miles or less and at higher elevation had the steepest slopes. On the basis of the median particle size, determined during pebble counts, the streambed substrate can be characterized as cobble (Mill Run, Bells Gap Run, Tipton Run, and Sink Run), a mix of gravel and cobble (South Poplar Run, Dry Gap Run, Glenwhite Run, Sugar Run, Blair Gap Run), and gravel (Poplar Run, Newry).

Daily mean values of gage height were determined, and continuous (30-minute interval) data consisting of specific conductance and water temperature were collected, at four sites; each site showed typical seasonal fluctuations and the effects of precipitation.

Streamflow affected discrete water-quality. Dissolved oxygen always increased with increased streamflow. Most cations (including barium and strontium), along with pH, specific conductance, and total dissolved solids, decreased with greater streamflow, reflecting the dilution effect of moderately acidic surface runoff and precipitation on groundwater discharge (base flow) into the stream channels. Concentrations of trace elements varied by constituent and streamflow.

On the basis of the results of water-quality analyses for the selected constituents, the water quality in 9 of the 12 streams can be considered fair or attaining with no measured constituent exceeding a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum or secondary contaminant level. Abandoned mine drainage (AMD) affects Glenwhite Run, Blair Gap Run, and Sugar Run. For Sugar Run, the AMD is reflected in the elevated iron concentration (greater than 300 micrograms per liter). Manganese concentrations greater than 50 micrograms per liter were measured in Glenwhite Run, Sugar Run, and Blair Gap Run.

A mixing curve based upon chloride/bromide ratios for two end points—precipitation and deicing salts—indicate that deicing salt is migrating to the streams. A similar curve representative of late-emerging flowback water from Marcellus gas wells indicated that the surface-water samples had not been influenced by such brines.

On the basis of the concentration of major ions, the streams in the study area generally had mixed cation and anion compositions. Calcium is the dominant cation in one stream. Carbonate and bicarbonate are the dominant anions for two streams, and sulfate is dominant in three streams. The remaining six streams do not have a dominant ion.

Biotic health was characterized at 10 of 12 stream sites; the two sites excluded were established late in the study period (May 2013) for refinement of water quality in the headwaters of Poplar Run and the location of Marcellus Formation gas wells. On the basis of the Maryland Index of Biotic Integrity (MdIBI) for fish assemblages, 8 of 10 streams can be considered in fair health. Tipton Run had the highest MdIBI score (3.75) and the greatest number of native species. South Poplar Run had the lowest MdIBI score (1.75); pollution tolerant blacknose dace was dominant. On the basis of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection macroinvertebrate index of biotic integrity, 9 of 10 streams were characterized as attaining, with scores as high as 88.9 at Tipton Run. Only Sugar Run was characterized as impaired, with a score of 40.4.

Publication Year 2016
Title Physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of selected headwater streams along the Allegheny Front, Blair County, Pennsylvania, July 2011–September 2013
DOI 10.3133/ofr20151173
Authors Dennis J. Low, Robin A. Brightbill, Heather L. Eggleston, Jeffrey J. Chaplin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2015-1173
Index ID ofr20151173
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pennsylvania Water Science Center