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Water quality and quantity and simulated surface-water and groundwater flow in the Laurel Hill Creek Basin, southwestern Pennsylvania, 1991–2007

July 10, 2017

Laurel Hill Creek is considered one of the most pristine waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania and has high recreational value as a high-quality cold-water fishery; however, the upper parts of the basin have documented water-quality impairments. Groundwater and surface water are withdrawn for public water supply and the basin has been identified as a Critical Water Planning Area (CWPA) under the State Water Plan. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Somerset County Conservation District, collected data and developed modeling tools to support the assessment of water-quality and water-quantity issues for a basin designated as a CWPA. Streams, springs, and groundwater wells were sampled for water quality in 2007. Streamflows were measured concurrent with water-quality sampling at main-stem sites on Laurel Hill Creek and tributaries in 2007. Stream temperatures were monitored continuously at five main-stem sites from 2007 to 2010. Water usage in the basin was summarized for 2003 and 2009 and a Water-Analysis Screening Tool (WAST) developed for the Pennsylvania State Water Plan was implemented to determine whether the water use in the basin exceeded the “safe yield” or “the amount of water that can be withdrawn from a water resource over a period of time without impairing the long-term utility of a water resource.” A groundwater and surface-water flow (GSFLOW) model was developed for Laurel Hill Creek and calibrated to the measured daily streamflow from 1991 to 2007 for the streamflow-gaging station near the outlet of the basin at Ursina, Pa. The CWPA designation requires an assessment of current and future water use. The calibrated GSFLOW model can be used to assess the hydrologic effects of future changes in water use and land use in the basin.

Analyses of samples collected for surface-water quality during base-flow conditions indicate that the highest nutrient concentrations in the main stem of Laurel Hill Creek were at sites in the northeastern part of the basin where agricultural activity is prominent. All of the total nitrogen (N) and a majority of the total phosphorus (P) concentrations in the main stem exceeded regional nutrient criteria levels of 0.31 and 0.01 milligrams per liter (mg/L), respectively. The highest total N and total P concentrations in the main stem were 1.42 and 0.06 mg/L, respectively. Tributary sites with the highest nutrient concentrations are in subbasins where treated wastewater is discharged, such as Kooser Run and Lost Creek. The highest total N and total P concentrations in subbasins were 3.45 and 0.11 mg/L, respectively. Dissolved chloride and sodium concentrations were highest in the upper part of the basin downstream from Interstate 76 because of road deicing salts. The mean base-flow concentrations of dissolved chloride and sodium were 117 and 77 mg/L, respectively, in samples from the main stem just below Interstate 76, and the mean concentrations in Clear Run were 210 and 118 mg/L, compared to concentrations less than 15 mg/L in tributaries that were not affected by highway runoff. Water quality in forested tributary subbasins underlain by the Allegheny and Pottsville Formations was influenced by acidic precipitation and, to a lesser extent, the underlying geology as indicated by pH values less than 5.0 and corresponding specific conductance ranging from 26 to 288 microsiemens per centimeter at 25 degrees Celsius for some samples; in contrast, pH values for main stem sites ranged from 6.6 to 8.5. Manganese (Mn) was the only dissolved constituent in the surface-water samples that exceeded the secondary maximum contaminant level (SMCL). More than one-half the samples from the main stem had Mn concentrations exceeding the SMCL level of 50 micrograms per liter (μg/L), whereas only 19 percent of samples from tributaries exceeded the SMCL for Mn.

Stream temperatures along the main stem of Laurel Hill Creek became higher moving downstream. During the summer months of June through August, the daily mean temperatures at the five sites exceeded the limit of 18.9 degrees Celsius (°C) for a cold-water fishery. The maximum instantaneous values for each site ranged from 27.2 to 32.8 °C.

Water-quality samples collected at groundwater sites (wells and springs) indicate that wells developed within the Mauch Chunk Formation had the best water quality, whereas wells developed within the Allegheny and Pottsville Formations yielded the poorest water quality. Waters from the Mauch Chunk Formation had the highest median pH (7.6) and alkalinity (80 mg/L calcium carbonate) values. The lowest pH and alkalinity median values were in waters from the Allegheny and Pottsville Formations. Groundwater samples collected from wells in the Allegheny and Pottsville Formations also had the highest concentrations of dissolved iron (Fe) and dissolved Mn. Seventy-eight percent of the groundwater samples collected from the Allegheny Formation exceeded the SMCL of 300 μg/L for Fe and 50 μg/L for Mn. Forty-three and 62 percent of the groundwater samples collected from the Pottsville Formation exceeded the SMCL for iron and Mn, respectively. The highest Fe and Mn concentrations for surface waters were measured for tributaries draining the Pottsville Formation. The highest median Fe concentration for tributaries was in samples from streams draining the Allegheny Formation.

During base-flow conditions, the streamflow per unit area along the main stem of Laurel Hill Creek was lowest in the upper parts of the basin [farthest upstream site 0.07 cubic foot per second per square mile (ft3/s/mi2)] and highest (two sites averaging about 0.20 (ft3/s/mi2) immediately downstream from Laurel Hill Lake in the center of the basin. Tributaries with the highest streamflow per unit area were those subbasins that drain the western ridge of the Laurel Hill Creek Basin. The mean streamflow per unit area for tributaries draining areas that extend into the western ridge and draining eastern or central sections was 0.24 and 0.05 ft3/s/mi2, respectively. In general, as the drainage area increased for tributary basins, the streamflow per unit area increased.

Criteria established by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection indicate that the safe yield of water withdrawals from the Laurel Hill Creek Basin is 1.43 million gallons per day (Mgal/d). Water-use data for 2009 indicate that net (water withdrawals subtracted by water discharges) water withdrawals from groundwater and surface-water sources in the basin were approximately 1.93 Mgal/d. Water withdrawals were concentrated in the upper part of the basin with approximately 80 percent of the withdrawals occurring in the upper 36 mi2 of the basin. Three subbasins—Allen Creek, Kooser Run, and Shafer Run— in the upper part were affected the most by water withdrawals such that safe yields were exceeded by more than 1,000 percent in the first two and more than 500 percent in the other. In the subbasin of Shafer Run, intermittent streamflow characterizes sections that historically have been perennial.

The GSFLOW model of the Laurel Hill Creek Basin is a simple one-layer representation of the groundwater flow system. The GSFLOW model was primarily calibrated to reduce the error term associated with base-flow periods. The total amount of observed streamflow at the Laurel Hill Creek at Ursina, Pa. streamflow-gaging station and the simulated streamflow were within 0.1 percent over the entire modeled period; however, annual differences between simulated and observed streamflow showed a range of -27 to 24 percent from 1992 to 2007 with nine of the years having less than a 10-percent difference. The primary source of simulated streamflow in the GSFLOW model was the subsurface (interflow; 62 percent), followed by groundwater (25 percent) and surface runoff (13 percent). Most of the simulated subsurface flow that reached the stream was in the form of slow flow as opposed to preferential (fast) interflow.

Publication Year 2017
Title Water quality and quantity and simulated surface-water and groundwater flow in the Laurel Hill Creek Basin, southwestern Pennsylvania, 1991–2007
DOI 10.3133/sir20165082
Authors Daniel G. Galeone, Dennis W. Risser, Lee W. Eicholtz, Scott A. Hoffman
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2016-5082
Index ID sir20165082
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pennsylvania Water Science Center