Before people settled in the Lake Erie basin, streams typically ran clear year-round and the lake was unspoiled by human activities and pollutants.
But then the original forest was cleared for agriculture, logging, roads and buildings. Rain falling on exposed soil accelerates runoff and erosion. Soil particles and pollutants are transported into the tributaries. Suspended soil particles then get deposited as sediment near the mouths of tributaries and along the lakeshore. Much of this sediment and pollution is resuspended and carried farther into the lake during storms.
So restoring Lake Erie requires an ecosystem approach. Downstream consequences must be linked to the tributaries and what happens upstream. Knowing more about those streams is an important first step.
The site of this week’s watershed exploration is the Crooked Creek watershed. Water drains from approximately 20.28 square miles of land that lies in the municipalities of Conneaut, Elk Creek, Girard, Platea, and Springfield into Lake Erie via Crooked Creek.
Crooked Creek flows through farm fields, so after rain or a snowmelt Crooked Creek is often the first creek to discolor and the last to clear. But this creek, third largest western PA Lake Erie tributary, is a popular steelhead fishery. You can fish at the mouth to posted nursery waters upstream, where fishing is prohibited. The “no fishing” area extends through Camp Fitch and up to the first bridge at Abels Road. From this bridge south to Happy Valley Road the area flows mostly through woods and has a reasonably good flow rate and is the most popular area to fish.
Low-water bridges and culverts obstruct upstream fish movement and reduce species richness and abundance above road crossings. Scientific studies confirm that stream crossings degrade and destroy habitat and cause wildlife population fragmentation and isolation. So it’s only a matter of time until species are lost from that part of the stream.
A National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Sustain Our Great Lakes Community Grant was awarded to Girard Township to fix problems at two stream crossings. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Sea Grant and the Regional Science Consortium, are providing technical design support, angler and construction access easements, construction oversight, outreach and biological monitoring support.
The Regional Science Consortium and PFBC have assessed and documented fish passage conditions at 29 possible barriers within the Crooked Creek watershed. Eleven of the 29 sites surveyed showed cracks, deterioration of wingwalls, eroding banks or sediment deposition. When crossings like these were installed in the past, little or no thought was given to how these obstacles would impact water quality or quantity or how their placement would restrict the movement of fish and wildlife.
Restoration work scheduled for later this year should resolve two barrier restrictions on Crooked Creek and an unnamed tributary near Culbertson Road. However the group advises that any construction that allows Steelhead movement further upstream should not allow invasive Sea Lamprey to advance.
During their 2013 surveys, Sea Lamprey were observed downstream of the restoration sites. Adult sea lampreys migrate into tributary streams with gravel substrate to spawn. The fertilized eggs hatch into small larvae, which burrow into the sand and silt stream bottoms and after three to six years transform into parasitic adults that migrate back to Lake Erie and prey on Steelhead and other fish.
For more information on fish and habitat evaluations on this and other Lake Erie Tributaries visit http://pib.psu.edu/.