Localized drought hurting trout, plants, other wildlife in Pennsylvania

Dry Wetland 4078

On Aug. 18, I checked out a local wetland that was drying up — a victim of little to no rain and the record heat of June, July and August. I was first attracted by the variety of birds working the newly-exposed mud — spotted, solitary and least sandpipers, along with four killdeer. A great blue heron took to the sky, disturbed by my intrusion.

A few small puddles dotted the mud — a sad remnant of the several acres of water that gave life to this wetland only a month earlier. Then I noticed movement in the shallow puddles. Carp were stranded and thrashing about, their golden scales glistening in the piercing sunlight.

But something else was going on and I sat transfixed as a natural drama played out before me. The dinosaurs of the wetland — two huge snapping turtle — were moving about, killing and eating the trapped carp. Both snappers had carp in their mouths, and I watched with binoculars as the turtle closest to me abandoned his fish and charged at another carp. The carp attempted to evade the jaws of death, but the drought had left it no place to go.

I realize that a few dead carp are nothing to get excited about, but much more is happening locally — and the effects of droughts are local. It doesn’t matter how much precipitation the state gets, only what is falls in a particular watershed. My home watershed — Bald Eagle Creek — has been very dry since June.

Signs of the drought are all around where I live in Centre County — stunted and shriveled fields of corn with their leaves curled and pointing toward the sky, brown lawns, dry streambeds and wetlands, dead wildflowers, wilted rhododendron and spice bush, tree leaves yellowing and dropping early, and even dead trees.

According to U.S. Geological Survey data for Aug. 20, Bald Eagle Creek is so low that it is only flowing 3 cubic feet per second, before it is joined by Spring Creek’s 157 cfs. Spring Creek and most of its tributaries receive their flows from deep limestone aquifers, rather than the streams of the upper Bald Eagle Valley, which can only hold their flows with significant rain at regular intervals. Almost all of the small tributaries to Bald Eagle Creek were dry — and in the past I had caught wild trout from some of them.

I visited the wetland again on Aug. 20 to take more photos. All of the carp were dead and the snappers gone. Five great blue herons and a green heron were catching and eating the remaining tadpoles. The mud in some areas was already totally dry and criss-crossed with deep cracks.

We finally received a little over an inch of much-needed rain over Aug. 22-23. Drought over? No, it will take much more than that. According to the USGS river gauges, Bald Eagle Creek jumped up to a healthy 50 cfs, two days later it was 25 cfs, and as I write this on Sept. 1, the flow has dropped to a sad 12 cfs. And that is all of the water that is flowing out of a 110-square-mile watershed.

Just a little to the south, the Juniata River at Huntingdon is very low. USGS data also shows extremely low stream flows in Cameron, Potter and northern Clinton counties — Young Woman’s Creek and Kettle Creek are very low, which means that many of their wild-trout-holding tributaries are likely dry.

What are the consequences of the drought?

The Bald Eagle Sportsmen’s Association, a cooperative trout nursery, lost several thousand trout in late July and early August — victims of the drought. Some wildflowers that normally produce pollen for butterflies and other insects are dying. Therefore, they will produce no seeds this fall. This will have a ripple effect through the biological community, affecting birds and mammals. Tree growth is stunted, and some trees have turned brown. Oaks, a very drought tolerant species, seem to be holding on and there might be a good crop of acorns despite the drought.

Wild trout need a good flow of cold water to survive, and many have died already as streams shrink and dry up. Aquatic insects and forage fish also die. In addition, the danger of forest fire is heightened.

Like the carp and the snapping turtles, as the drought worsens, trout anglers are left with fewer and fewer places to go. Spring Creek is one of these places, with its consistently cool water upwelling from limestone springs.

A drought, even a very localized one, demonstrates the importance of Spring Creek and other limestone streams around the state. It should also help everyone to realize how dependent us outdoor lovers are dependent on regular rainfall.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Mark Nale

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