The volunteer board members of the non-profit Buffalo Creek Watershed Alliance (BCWA) of the Merrill W. Linn Land and Waterways Conservancy were surprised at the high levels of bacteria in Union County creeks when the Union County Conservation District (UCCD) shared testing data.
Working for 10 years for a healthier creek, the alliance never considered tests would show Buffalo Creek and Limestone Run had such serious bacterial pollution. The board felt compelled to share the following information with the public to stimulate improvement of water quality in the county.
During the summer of 2009 and 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and area volunteers conducted testing for fecal coliform bacteria in three Union County watersheds: Buffalo Creek, Limestone/Bull Run and Upper Penns Creek. This testing did not differentiate between human bacteria from sewage treatment plants and septic systems and animal bacteria from farming and wild and domesticated animals.
This bacterial testing was done on five different days over two summer months. Data from these tests were calculated in a geometric mean. For an accurate scientific explanation of this process see the 2012 Integrated Report with technical explanations available for public review on DEP's website: www.depweb.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/water_quality_standards/10556/integrated_water_quality_report_-_2012/1127203
The DEP, through the Pennsylvania County Conservation Districts, is required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make every effort to reduce bacteria, or "fecal coliforms" in Pennsylvania waterways to below 200 cfu/100 ml (amount of colony forming units per 100 milliliters of stream water).
Test results in 2010 showed the bacterial count on Buffalo Creek at two different sites upstream at Hoover Road Bridge and downstream at Forest Hill Road Bridge in early summer and late summer was well above the bacterial counts allowed by the EPA of 200. For example, from mid-June to mid-July, the geometric means at the downstream site and upstream site on Buffalo Creek were 891.36 cfu/100 ml and 817.83 cfu/100 ml, respectively.
As a result, Buffalo Creek is in the highest "impaired for at least one recreational use" category #5 -- in other words, "recreational use is not being supported."
In Limestone Run/Bull Run, tested in 2009, the high bacterial numbers gave the Run the same "impaired for recreational use" label at category #5. For example, the upstream results of the geometric means were 363.12 cfu/100 ml for the period of mid-July to early-August and 2,236.89 cfu/100 ml for mid-August to mid-September. At this high level of impairment, DEP is required to reduce bacteria to an average reading below 200 cfu/100ml, the "recreational use" standard.
The Union County Conservation District has been developing plans to reduce these high bacterial counts in Buffalo Creek and Limestone Run by working with area polluters in these two watersheds.
Upper Penns Creek in Union County demonstrated much better water quality with lower bacterial numbers. From mid-June to mid-July, the geometric means at the downstream site and upstream site on Upper Penns Creek were 47.61 cfu/100 ml and 21.94 cfu/100 ml, respectively, and so is classified in category #2, "streams with attaining one or more protected uses which includes aquatic life, fish consumption, potable water and recreation."
The greatest difference between Upper Penns Creek, Buffalo Creek and Limestone Run watersheds is the number of farms, the size of population in the watersheds, and the Mifflinburg sewage treatment plant that has undergone significant upgrading recently. Experts advise that with such high levels of fecal coliforms in Buffalo Creek and Limestone Run, drinking the water and swimming are not recommended.
In sum, BCWA hopes every effort will be made to improve the water quality in the watersheds within Union County by their citizens and the UCCD, including further and more accurate testing in all watersheds.
By Ben Hoskins
Chairman, Buffalo Creek Watershed Alliance