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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Pennsylvania: Northern Swatara Creek

Treating Acid Mine Drainage Improves Water Quality for Fish

Waterbody | Problem | Project Highlights | Results | Partners & Funding

Waterbody Improved

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Swatara Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River, which drains to the Chesapeake Bay. Dozens of species of fish that had not been present for decades returned to a 7-mile segment of Northern Swatara Creek as a result of improvements in water quality and stream habitat.

Northern Swatara Creek was polluted by excess acidity, along with iron, manganese, and aluminum, that were leaching from abandoned anthracite coal mines. Pennsylvania listed the stream segment on the state's 303(d) list in 1996 and subsequent listing cycles. Best management practices (BMPs) were employed to treat the abandoned mine drainage (AMD) and improve water quality. Before 1985 no fish were found in ecological studies conducted on the Northern Swatara Creek; however, in the past decade a gradual and steady increase in the number of fish species and individuals has been documented. In fact, annual studies since 1999 have confirmed that in all but 2 years more than 20 species of fish and more than 200 individual fish were living in the creek.


The best indicator of improved water quality is the gradual shift of the benthic macroinvertebrate community from pollutant-tolerant species to more pollutant-sensitive species. In 1997 mayflies (a benthic macroinvertebrate in the Ephemeroptera order) once again began to be found in the creek in the springtime. Although mayflies are common in fisheries in more pristine areas of Pennsylvania, they had not occurred in Swatara Creek for perhaps a hundred years. In total, about 7 stream miles of the Northern Swatara Creek have dramatically improved water quality. As a result, the fish community has also rebounded (Figure 1). Twenty-four species of fish were documented in 2000, including coldwater species like brook trout and sculpin and warm-water species like sunfish, pickerel, and bullhead catfish. Although most of the fish species are considered to have moderate tolerance to pollution, several pollution-intolerant species, including river chub, cutlips minnow, and longnose dace, have been reported since 1997.

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Partners and Funding

In total, more than $731,026 of section 319 funding has been used to address AMD and help to restore the Northern Swatara Creek, as well as to leverage in-kind services and money from other sources. More than $300,000 of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Abandoned Mine Reclamation Funds has been applied to water quality projects in the watershed. The U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey, and Office of Surface Mining have also funded projects.

A total of more than $9 million of Operation Scarlift, Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, and Growing Greener funds have been used in the Northern Swatara watershed. Schuylkill County Conservation District, Northern Swatara Creek Watershed Association, municipalities, local industries and businesses, sportsman clubs, and private citizens have provided technical assistance, volunteer labor, and donations of funds and materials.

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