of the Buffalo Creek Watershed
Location of Buffalo Creek in central Pennsylvania
Buffalo Creek Watershed in Union County
Buffalo Creek is approximately 28 miles long. Its watershed or drainage area covers 85,760 acres or 134 square miles. The watershed includes the central part of Union County and a small portion of eastern Centre County . Parts of 9 townships in Union County and 2 in Center County are included, with two boroughs--Mifflinburg and Lewisburg--and several rural villages--Cowan, Mazeppa, Forest Hill, Vicksburg , Kelly Crossroads, Buffalo Crossroads, and Pleasant Grove.
The topography varies from steeply sloped mountainous areas in the northern portion to rolling hills with gentle slopes in the valley floor to the south.
Major tributaries of Buffalo Creek include Little Buffalo Creek, the North Branch of Buffalo Creek, Spruce Run, and Rapid Run. The North Branch and Spruce Run are both used for public water supplies. The North Branch has received the highest quality rating of the PA Department of Environmental Protection--an Exceptional Value watershed from its headwaters to the Mifflinburg public water intake. The rating means that it is an outstanding national, state, regional, or local resource.
Spruce Run and Rapid Run (which flows from Raymond B. Winter State Park to the village of Cowan ) are both rated as High Quality-Cold Water Fisheries. They are streams that have excellent water quality and environmental or other features that require special protection. These streams support species indigenous to cold-water habitat, notably trout. A segment of the main branch of Buffalo Creek has the same High Quality rating from its headwaters to the bridge at Pleasant Grove.
Other tributaries--Little Buffalo Creek and Beaver Run--are rated as Cold Water Fisheries. Though the bulk of the trout fishery is supported by stocking done by the PA Fish and Boat Commission, these and other tributaries are capable of producing and sustaining a limited stock of native brook trout. Because those fish are very sensitive to changes in water quality and temperature, their presence is indicative of healthy streams.
Underlying an appreciable part of the watershed is a carbonate aquifer which runs roughly east and west. It supplies good water to many wells, mostly private ones. A valuable but delicate resource, it is potentially vulnerable to pollution from surface waters and to structural disturbance by instability in the surrounding rock.
The primary land use in the watershed is forest cover. Located primarily in the headwater areas of Bald Eagle State Forest , 60% of the watershed is forested. Another 34% is used in agricultural production--as cropland, pasture, produce gardening, and the like. Approximately 6% of the area is developed for residential, commercial, and industrial uses.
In recent decades, several municipalities in the watershed have experienced a steady growth of population and consequently of development. This has been especially true of the Route 45 corridor and the area in and around the Borough of Mifflinburg. The borough has been gaining residents at a rate above 3% annually, which contrasts with the concurrent loss of residents in most PA boroughs. Some townships in the area have also been growing, notably West Buffalo and Limestone, which have had population gains above 10% in the past 10 years.
Socio-Economic Profile of Buffalo Creek Watershed
The Buffalo Creek Watershed is a very important economic resource for our area. It provides drinking water for residents, businesses and industries. In particular the North Branch of Buffalo Creek and Spruce Run are used for public drinking water supplies, and many homeowners have wells that tap the groundwater in the watershed. The leading business activity in the watershed remains crop and livestock production and farm support services. Timber harvesting, while not as dominant as it once was, continues to provide resource materials for lumber and other wood products. Tourism has also been on the rise and continues to support the local economy while traditional manufacturing trades are in decline.
Biological Resources of Buffalo Creek Watershed
The forests of the watershed are primarily deciduous hardwoods with coniferous stands of hemlock and pine interspersed. The watershed is home to a variety of wildlife such as whitetail deer, black bear, wild turkey, songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, rodents, fox, raccoon, opossum, skunk, reptiles and amphibians. Common fish in the colder flowing stream segments are brook and brown trout while the warmer water reaches hold suckers, smallmouth bass and those species tolerant of warmer conditions. Half of all PA Fish and Boat Commission approved trout waters in Union County are in the Buffalo Creek Watershed.
Environmental Concerns of Buffalo Creek Watershed
All the main tributaries of Buffalo Creek begin as pristine streams in mountains of Bald Eagle State Forest before they flow down into Buffalo Valley with its pastoral landscape of farms and small towns. Even though the area remains rural, its human development puts a strain on the environment of the watershed. Land use can significantly influence water quality. Generally areas undeveloped with little human presence have better water quality while streams in and around agricultural and developed areas generally show some signs of degradation.
Erosion from cultivated fields and stream banks where livestock is not excluded, manure runoff, and over-application of fertilizer and pesticides can be problems. Likewise, farms are a large source of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and silt. Most farmers have already taken measures reduce agricultural run-off.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which periodically measures the water quality of the streams, identified 69 of the 268 stream total miles as impaired in 2010. Recent testing by BCWA at the request of the PA Department of Environmental Protection found that the bacteria levels in Buffalo Creek and its tributaries in agricultural area to be at the highest level of impairment. Tests show that the bacteria are primarily from domestic animals (cows, pigs, horses, sheep, ducks). All farms are now required to develop a plan and timeframe to reduce the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus bacteria and silt, as well as buffer land near streams.
Land that is used for residential and commercial purposes often contribute excessive amounts of stormwater runoff, pollutants that wash off parking lots, thermal inputs, and increased nutrient loads associated with over application
of lawn and garden chemicals, malfunctioning on-lot septic systems and effluent from sewage treatment plants. Storm runoff from paved surfaces, buildings, and lawns put chemical pollutants into the streams and increase the likelihood of flooding. The recent adoption of “Cultivating Community: A Plan for Union County’s Future” and environmental innovations in residential developments will help reduce these problems.