With its natural beauty and high water quality, Yellow Creek watershed is one of eastern Ohio’s best kept secrets. Encompassing 234 square miles, it flows through Jefferson, Carroll, and Columbiana counties, and a small portion of Harrison County before entering the Ohio River near Hammondsville.
Yellow Creek lies east of the Flushing Escarpment, the drainage divide that separates central Ohio River tributaries from streams flowing to the Tuscarawas River.
This is significant due to the predominance of limestone bedrock in this area, which may be a saving grace for Yellow Creek.
While the stream is now a thing of beauty, long-time residents can tell you that this was not always the case.
My first impression of the watershed was formed on the first day of school my seventh grade year. Staring out the school bus window that August morning, I was alarmed when I saw an orange stream running parallel to the road.
I asked other students who were more familiar with the area what caused this, no one knew. It had been like that as long as anyone could remember.
Later on that day I was unknowingly exposed to acid mine drainage again when I drank from the school’s fountain and was rewarded with a mouthful of iron-laden water.
Damage. I wouldn’t know until a decade later when I began working at Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District that the entire subwatershed of Wolf Run was underlain by abandoned underground coal mines, causing the orange stream and unappealing taste to well water in the area.
The result of mining practices utilized before more strict regulation came along in the late 1970s is acid mine drainage, or AMD. Acid mine drainage is the discharge of acidic water from abandoned surface or deep coal mines. It often contains high concentrations of metals such as iron, aluminum, manganese and magnesium.
While some of this discharge was coming from active mines in the watershed, a large portion was from abandoned mines that preceded the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.
From 1900 to 1970 underground mines in the Yellow Creek watershed were abandoned at a rate of 1.5 mines per year. At the height of coal production in Yellow Creek, almost the entirety of the main stream was impacted.
If you visit Yellow Creek today, you would not believe that the stream was once plagued by these impairments. After the completion of the Total Maximum Daily Load Study in 2005, Yellow Creek ranked in the top 10 healthiest watersheds in Ohio.
This is largely due to the buffering capacity of the limestone that Yellow Creek and its tributaries flow over, neutralizing the effects of acid mine drainage in the watershed.
Impairments caused by AMD now almost exclusively occur in small streams adjacent to abandoned mines. The watershed was healing naturally to an extent, but it still needed our help.
The one positive aspect of having AMD in your watershed may be its affect on the inhabitants. Yellow Creek residents have rallied to enhance the quality of water in their area, and AMD was their first priority.
In 1998, Brush Creek Township trustees approached the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District to express their concerns about the acid mine drainage impacting streams in the watershed. As a result of this encounter, the first meeting of concerned land owners commenced, and so began the formation of the Yellow Creek Watershed Restoration Coalition.
Over the years, the residents of the coalition have met regularly with one common interest: to address water quality issues in the watershed.
The focus of the group’s efforts was decided by results of landowner surveys and discussions held at coalition meetings. They include acid mine drainage, illegal dump sites, failing home sewage treatment system and employing best management practices in agriculture.
Economics and stewardship
One of the most important objectives of the coalition is to assist in balancing the needs of the community and the stewardship of the resource. Thanks in large part to the support of the coalition, the Division of Mineral Resource Management has installed Phase I of a two-phase AMD treatment system in the headwaters of Wolf Run.
What you can do. There are organized watershed groups throughout Ohio. Having worked alongside other coordinators, I can tell you that they are always looking for volunteers for the variety of activities and educational outreach in their respective watersheds.
More than anything, we want the residents to be a voice in the watershed and share their input. If you would like to become involved in your watershed, but don’t know which one you live in, visit www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/9192/Default.aspx.
You may also search for active watershed groups by county at http://ohiowatersheds.osu.edu/groups.
Make a positive impact in your community by participating with a watershed group near you.