Rivers run through our lives in significant ways.
And that is as true a statement for people who never so much as dip a toe into their local river as it is for the fishers and boaters who immerse themselves in it.
For many of us, the water that comes from our faucets was drawn from the local river. In too many instances still, the water that leaves our toilets ends up there; which is why so many of our communities have sanitary sewer projects underway.
Our improving water quality is, in part, the silver lining in the dark cloud of industrial decline. Yet the abundance of our improving water supplies also is creating new economic opportunities.
Rivers constantly move, grow, diminish, improve and decline in different ways at different places simultaneously. A look in one place does not reveal much of it; a fish caught here may not live there; water samples in the same location will vary over time.
Yet rivers are important and deserving of attention. So how do we get an accurate look at the whole river, ascertain its health and measure its impact upon people’s lives?
The Chestnut Ridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Fayette County Conservation District and Mountain Watershed Association attempted to do exactly that recently during a Youghiogheny River Symposium at the Penn State Fayette, Eberly Campus near Uniontown.
They gathered about 130 river enthusiasts and exposed them to the perspectives of federal and state officials, biologists, river-based businesspeople, fishers, conservationists and college professors — all with pieces of information about the current state of the Yough.
Their bottom line: The Youghiogheny is improving in water quality and aquatic diversity, based upon comparisons with similar measurements made in the late 1990s. But it faces continuing challenges from abandoned-mine drainage, Marcellus shale activity, visitor presence and global warming.
That the Yough is a special place was echoed by almost everyone who spoke. Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn called the ridges through which the river runs “cold islands” that protect natural diversity.
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Fisheries Manager Rick Lorson described the Yough as a special fishery — half cold-water fishery and half warm-water fishery — that is open to trout fishing all year. Dr. Cynthia Walter, a biology professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, compared the region’s qualities to those of the Great Smokey Mountains, which is a world heritage site.
The Yough means business and profits for outdoor recreation services and suppliers. Eric Martin, owner of Wilderness Voyageurs, said his business has evolved into an “adventure destination resort” which not only includes whitewater boating and rafting but bicycling, guided excursions, lodging and dining.
Renee Seifert, President/CEO of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, called on everyone to “manage the visitors,” in order to protect the beautiful resources that bring people to this valley.
Krissy Kasserman, Youghiogheny Riverkeeper; Annie Quinn, executive director of the Jacobs Creek Watershed Association; and Mark Killar, watershed manager for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy; talked about efforts to improve major Yough tributaries such as the Cassellman River, Indian Creek, Jacobs Creek and Sewickley Creek and the challenges remaining in those watersheds.
“That’s the value of meetings like this,” said Ben Moyer, a well-known nature writer who served as the event’s master of ceremonies. He suggested that through these diverse perspectives everyone gains a greater appreciation for the complexities posed by rivers and the interrelationships required to deal effectively with those complexities.
We have other rivers, running through our region, that could benefit from similar gatherings on an occasional basis. Conservancies, watershed groups, trout unlimited chapters and other like-minded organizations all are possible hosts.
The potential benefits are significant. For through such gatherings we can assemble a more comprehensive picture of the health and vibrancy, challenges and opportunities of these rivers that run through our lives.