by Kendall Slee for Erie National Wildlife Refuge’s newsletter, Inside Erie, September 2009
When Crawford County Conservation District representatives visit schools and events, they often bring a topological model of the French Creek Watershed — the 1,235 acres of rolling hills and valleys that drain into French Creek. Students sprinkle cocoa powder on the model landscape, and then spray it with water, getting a birds-eye view of how pollution that may seem far from the creek can ultimately wash into it.
“It gets people thinking about what a watershed is, what watershed they live in and how the things they do can affect it,” says Lynn Sandieson, district manager of the conservation district. “If you change your oil in the driveway, what happens to that? What happens if you lose soil off your land? Where does it go?”
The model demonstrates one of the greatest threats to the health of French Creek — non-point source pollution. Non-point source pollution is water pollution that can’t be tracked to a single source. Contaminants and sediment scattered throughout a watershed can eventually wash into the water, adding up to levels that damage water quality and fragile organisms that live in and around the water.
So far, the 117-mile French Creek remains healthy. More than 80 different species of fish inhabit it, including very rare species like the Pennsylvania-endangered eastern sand darter and spotted darter. Rare freshwater mussels also can still be found in French Creek and some of its tributaries such as Muddy Creek, which passes through Erie National Wildlife Refuge’s Seneca Division.
“It’s one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in the United States,” says Nick Pinizzotto, senior director of watershed conservation and conservation services for Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. “Not only is it unique to Pennsylvania, but to the whole Northeast.” But the French Creek is fragile, he adds. “If we’re not careful how we manage it, that biodiversity may be lost.”
Keeping the creek healthy consists of a two-pronged effort by people and communities in the watershed. The first part is to prevent contaminants from
entering the water. For individual residents, this can be as simple as minimizing pesticides and fertilizers in lawn care, and making sure that oil and
other household hazardous wastes are properly disposed.
The Crawford County Conservation District offers a program for farmers to develop best management practices that reduce the runoff of waste, soil and nutrients from agricultural lands. Thanks to grants from the state and county, the district can cover 75 percent of the costs for improvements. (For information, go to Crawfordconservation.com.) The second prong of protecting French Creek’s water quality is to preserve natural buffers along the creek and its tributaries, and throughout the watershed. Wetlands are very important for their unparalleled ability to filter contaminants. Also creekside trees and brush are crucial for shading the waters, regulating water temperature and providing food and habitat for wildlife.
Erie’s 8,800 acres of protected lands, two-thirds of which are wetlands, contribute to the health of Muddy Creek and other waters downstream. The
refuge has planted trees along Muddy Creek, does not spray for mosquitos, and requires leased croplands on the refuge to have vegetation buffers along
Of course, the natural lands and vegetative buffers necessary to keep French Creek healthy extend far beyond refuge borders. Many landowners are
adopting practices to better protect French Creek and its tributaries, Sandieson notes.
The nonprofit French Creek Valley Conservancy, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, works with
landowners in Crawford, Erie, Mercer and Venango counties to permanently conserve natural lands bordering the creek and its tributaries. “By protecting the adjoining lands, you help protect what’s going into the creek,” says French Creek Valley Conservancy President John Tautin.