The Value of Clean Water watersheds of the laurel highlands region

This study highlights the value of clean water in the Laurel Highlands region and illustrates the economic benefits in improving ecosystem services through restoration and conservation projects.

The existing annual value of ecosystem services in the 11-watershed region is estimated at $3.7 billion.

Incorporating these benefits into policy and funding decisions will help to create an environment in which both the economy and the watersheds can thrive.

Photo courtesy of Leo Vensel.

"Ecosystem services" are benefits that people receive from nature: clean air and water, scenic views, experiences in nature, and fertile soil to grow food.

Forested land has significant value for ecosystem services such as recreation and good air quality while agricultural lands provide high food and raw material values.

Ecosystems provide us many benefits: filtered air and water, the removal of harmful toxins, and a natural buffer to extreme weather events, all at no cost to us.

Photo courtesy of Eric Harder.

The 11 major watersheds of the Youghiogheny and Loyalhanna-Conemaugh River Basins contain 6,000 stream miles - 1.9 million acres - and 550,000 people.

Of the 6,000 miles of streams in the Laurel Highlands region - 1,675 miles are considered impaired within the standards set by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

300 stream miles are designated as exceptional value streams, including 30 miles of wilderness trout streams.

Of the nearly 300 designated exceptional value streams, only 38 miles - less than 2% - currently meet the water quality standard of their designation...

Photo courtesy of Len Lichvar.

Stressors in watersheds, such as development and pollution, can reduce or disrupt the flow of these services, creating an economic cost to society.

Southwestern Pennsylvania's legacy of coal mining, logging, steel making, and gas production have left the region's watersheds severely impacted and the future of water resources unclear.

Current threats to our water

A resurgence in active coal mining and destructive quarrying practices, extreme weather events, pollution from agricultural and urban runoff, natural gas drilling and associated water use, and inadequate sewage management are degrading water quality and threatening the resilience of regional watersheds.

In the region, there are at least

  • 350+ industrial discharge sites
  • 77 sewage treatment discharge sites
  • 38 active underground mining permits
  • 2,000 conventional oil and gas wells and
  • 331 unconventional natural gas wells

across the landscape.

Photo courtesy of Eric Harder.

For decades, the prevailing narrative has pitted economics and the environment against one another, suggesting that a choice must be made between jobs and income or investment in the natural landscape.

This could not be further from the truth; protecting and restoring watersheds goes hand in hand with developing and maintaining a strong, vibrant economy for generations to come.

abandoned mine drainage

More than half of impaired streams in the region are damaged by abandoned mine drainage (AMD).

Whether near the surface or deep underground, mining exposes buried rock layers containing sulfur rich minerals to the atmosphere. Since they are below a water table or aquifer, the mined area fills with water after it’s closed down.

A series of chemical reactions, assisted by underground bacteria and fueled by the surplus of water and atmospheric oxygen, take place producing sulfuric acid and dissolved metals. This acidic, metal-rich water flows out of the abandoned mine and into surrounding streams. If left untreated, chronic pollution from AMD will impair or kill much of the aquatic life within those streams.

Of the 3,700 stream miles designated for cold-water fishing, 500 miles are currently impaired by AMD.

Streams impacted by mine drainage commonly display a red-orange substance caused by the presence of iron. Photo courtesy of Eric Harder.

In addition, the surge of natural gas drilling from the Marcellus Shale boom and the resurgence of coal mining poses a new threat to the region's watersheds.


Natural gas hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in the region is expected to increase drastically in the next 10 years. Natural gas development in the five-county region is some of the densest in the state.

By 2030, another 8,796 unconventional wells may be drilled on 1,466 well pads. This projection would impact 25,000 acres of forested land and convert roughly 6,000 acres of working farmland into barren or developed land. Each new well pad and associated infrastructure covers roughly nine acres, with indirect impacts to the ecosystem in forested areas spanning an additional 21 acres.

Unconventional wells, drilled to extract Marcellus Shale gas, require much more intensive resource use than conventional wells; wells reach up to 5,000 feet horizontally from the well pad and use 11.4 million gallons of water, as opposed to 100,000 gallons for a conventional well. 192 million gallons a day could be demanded from the 11 watersheds' surface waters by 2030.

Southwest Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of FracTracker Alliance.

Wastewater from well pads, or the fluid that returns to the surface after fracking ("flowback"), can contain heavy metals, radioactive material, endocrine disruptors, volatile organic compounds, and carcinogens.

One recent analysis found that shale gas wastewater contained median barium concentrations more than 200 times the EPA's limit for barium in drinking water and 40 times the Pennsylvania limit for wastewater effluent.

Wastewater spills are common. 1,923 spills were documented in Pennsylvania between 2005 and 2014. Roughly 5% of all wastewater is lost to spills, usually during transport.

Trucks haul wastewater, contaminated soil, and used fracking sand labeled with "residual waste" signage. Photo courtesy of Eric Harder.

In Pennsylvania, 343 private drinking wells were confirmed to be contaminated due to drilling and fracking operations over eight years.

Westmoreland County has 80,337 people living within two miles of a well while Fayette County has 61,473.

An insulated water buffalo is the alternative for a property that has lost its water as a result of fracking development. Photo courtesy of Ashley Funk.

Water contamination not only comes from resource extraction - it can arise as a result of dilapidated or inadequate public infrastructure.


Within watersheds in the Laurel Highlands, water quality degradation from failing septic systems and antiquated public water treatment plants is a prominent concern.

Roughly 20% of on-lot sewage systems in Pennsylvania are failing. On-lot sewage currently impairs 40 miles of streams in the study region.

There are 124,000 homes in the region that use on-lot septic systems to treat their sewage and 27,000 homes that rely on "wildcat" sewers which discharge human waste directly into streets, gullies, or streams.

Combined Sewer Outfalls (CSOs) are common when municipalities are at risk during flooding events. Photo courtesy of Eric Harder.

Failing septic tanks contribute to nutrient enrichments in streams which causes excessive algal growth, are a source of suspended particles, and contribute to an increase in water temperature and levels of fecal coliform bacteria in water.

Water quality degradation from failing on-lot systems negatively impacts many ecosystem services related to water, including:

  • Raw material goods (water for non-drinking purposes)
  • Nutritional goods (drinking water)
  • Recreation
  • Human health

A lack of public sewage infrastructure leaves many homes utilizing septic pipes that actively and passively drain into our waterways. Photo courtesy of Hannah Spencer.

In a healthy, well-functioning watershed, vegetation

- trees, grasses, and other plants -

is essential for water purification and nutrient retention.


Natural buffers reduce sedimentation and improve water clarity, which can have a positive benefit on the ecosystem services of aesthetics, recreation, and overall water quality. Many riparian zones in the region lack enough vegetation to handle water purification and nutrient retention needs.

An estimated 654 miles of streams in the region are impaired by excessive siltation, the suspension of dirt in water - one of the most visible indicators of poor water quality. This stream pollution is largely due to stormwater runoff from agricultural resources, residential areas, roads, and other developed land uses. Riparian (stream) buffers are one of the most common and effective ways to manage non-point pollution runoff.

Erosion and runoff can deliver excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), pathogens (fecal coliform bacteria), and other pollutants (toxins) into surface water.

A lack of vegetation along streambanks leads to erosion, root exposure, and sediment washing into the stream. Photo courtesy of Hannah Spencer

Unsafe water, or the perception of unsafe water, negatively affects the demand for days of recreation and how people value those experiences.


Watersheds in the region offer a wealth of recreational opportunities that support local economies but require clean water to be sustained.

The Laurel Highlands region includes:

  • 5 National Parks
  • 9 State Parks
  • Pennsylvania's highest peak
  • and deepest gorge
  • 191 Natural Heritage Areas
  • 245,000 acres of protected lands (including agricultural and conservation easements, recreation areas, and state lands

The 9 state parks in the study region hosted 1.1 million visitors who spent more than $65 million in the region in 2010.

Anglers participate in more than 844,000 recreational fishing days a year, with the highest demand in the Middle Youghiogheny, Loyalhanna Creek, and the Conemaugh River watersheds.

Water-based activities account for an estimated 26% of visitation to the state parks.

Shoreline and fly-fishing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, boating, and swimming are major recreational activities that support local economies and depend on clean water.

Local organizations take water quality samples in popular recreations spots in the Laurel Highlands. Learn more about water quality in the Youghiogheny River watershed:

Water trails throughout the region provide points of access for kayakers, paddlers, and fishers, cultivating outdoor recreation businesses along the rivers.

Popular water trails in the region include:

A 2012 economic impact study on water trails in Pennsylvania reported that 40% of water trail visitors were concerned about water quality when they visit.

Photo courtesy of Eric Harder.

Higher water quality can lead to an increase in visitation and spending in the region, supporting local jobs and businesses and even attracting new residents.

By cleaning up damaged streams and attracting residents and visitors alike to the rivers, both the economy and the watersheds can thrive.


This baseline ecosystem service assessment sets the stage for how management scenarios and conservation strategies can result in changes in the supply of the ecosystem services.

This includes funding for continued, more extensive, and more effective watershed protection measures such as AMD remediation, expanding riparian buffers, and measures to mitigate damage from gas, coal, and gravel mining.

Along with on-the-ground improvements, organizations, local governments, and state agencies should continue research to develop new information and tools for informing the next round of strategies and actions that protect habitat and improve water quality in the region.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Spencer.

Prioritize Funding for AMD Treatment Systems

Nearly 70 passive AMD treatment systems throughout the region are collectively treating 8.9 billion gallons of AMD each year. This is beginning to restore streams by improving water quality and allowing fisheries to thrive in waters once too toxic to support life.

Restoring water quality for the 878 miles of AMD-impaired streams in the Laurel Highlands can provide economic value in the form of higher property values, new recreational angling opportunities, and lower water treatment costs.

In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, a study shows that households within 200 feet to a quarter mile of AMD-impaired streams have 5% to 12.8% lower property values. If remediation efforts fully restore AMD-impaired streams, one-time property value gains in the Laurel Highlands region range from $36 million to nearly $765 million.

Agencies and organizations must consider the ecosystem services that will provide recurring benefits so long as treatment and restoration are maintained. An average passive treatment system in these watersheds costs $415,000 to construct and requires $16,600 of annual maintenance to ensure water quality improvements are sustained. Although these systems can be costly, the benefits create a return on the investment. Restored stream miles on average provide $19,131 per year per mile in recreational fishing benefit alone. Restoring streams damaged by AMD in the study region could bring an additional benefit of $16.8 million in recreational fishing.

Gallentine Mine Drainage Treatment System. Photo courtesy of Carla Ruddock.

Consider Ecosystem Service Values in Energy Permitting

Losses associated with extraction all have economic impacts in the form of increased water treatment costs, lost existence value for rare and threatened species, and forgone recreation activity, either from direct changes to the landscape or changes in resident and visitor perspectives on the quality of recreation in the region.

A more accurate account of external costs incurred by communities should include an assessment of ecosystem services damaged by new energy development, how water demand will increase, and what water quality measures will be degraded. Specifically, proper cost accounting should:

  1. Require an ecosystem services impact assessment for each new natural gas well and any surface disturbance associated with coal and gravel mining. Impact assessments conducted during the permitting process must consider additional disturbances beyond the direct footprint of construction.
  2. Set impact fees for industry use to compensate for watersheds' incurred costs. Realistically, energy development will continue in the region, but communities should be compensated for damages in the areas where drilling and mining occurs.
  3. Determine potential sources of the additional water demand required for unconventional natural gas drilling in regional watersheds by 2030. Watershed groups and public water suppliers could partner to determine whether the watersheds in the region do not have excess supply to support additional water demand for unconventional natural gas production.

Photo courtesy of Anonymous Mountain Watershed Association Member.

Foster Regional Collaboration on Sewage Data and Water Quality Monitoring

Due to the lack of centralized municipal level data on the percentage of homes with failing on-lot systems, why they fail, their age, spatial distribution, and associated costs, the specific economic benefits are not currently quantifiable.

This analysis instead provides recommendations and areas for future study for two actions related to on-lot septic systems that could improve water quality and create downstream economic benefits in the region:

  1. Connecting homes with failing on-lot septic systems near impaired streams to public sewage systems in potential low cost/high feasibility areas. This action would target areas near impaired streams with a high density of households with failing on-lot systems that also fall under existing public sewage service areas.
  2. Repairing failing on-lot septic tank systems near impaired streams. This action would also target areas near impaired streams with a high density of failing systems and examine economic and water quality benefits associated with repairing failing systems.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Spencer.

Require Cost-Benefit Analyses for Riparian Buffer Project

The initial cost of establishing an acre of natural buffer is estimated at $1,740, or a total of $2.5 million for a quarter of all siltation-damaged streams in the region.

While many factors contribute to the degradation of water quality, turbidity, or how murky the water is, has been shown to reduce property values.

State-wide, regional, and local programs should incorporate ecosystem service benefits into consideration of compensation levels for conserved riparian areas. Incentivizing the establishment of forested riparian buffers along streams impaired by sedimentation or nutrient enrichment can provide the greatest return in ecosystem service value.

Explore compensation schemes between downstream municipalities and upstream landowners. Programs like Pennsylvania's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program are already in place to compensate landowners for upfront costs of converting and maintaining natural riparian buffers.

Westmoreland County recently released an Integrated Water Resources Plan, highlighting the use of residential and urban best management practices (BMPs) such as:

  • rain gardens
  • pervious and permeable paved surfaces
  • bioretention facilities
  • riparian buffer plantings around parking lots and other developed areas

Common agricultural BMPs in the region include:

  • fencing
  • use of cover crops
  • no-till seeding
  • fertilizer application management
  • maintaining riparian buffers around cropland and pastureland

An acre of natural buffer next to cropland can retain 2.5 tons of soil (which could otherwise become sediment and silt downstream), 6.4 pounds of nitrogen, and 1.1 pounds of phosphorus. The improvement in this ecosystem service in watersheds provides an estimated $1.3 million in annual economic benefit.

Photo courtesy of Katie French.

Focus on Water Quality when Promoting Outdoor Recreation

From 1998-2016, travel and tourism jobs in the Laurel Highlands increased by 7.8% while employment in all other industries fell by 0.3%. Outdoor recreation in the state supports 251,000 direct jobs, $8.6 billion in personal income, and generates $29.1 billion in consumer spending. Outdoor recreation supports more than three times as many jobs as the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.

Water-based activities account for $17 million of the annual spending at the nine state parks in the region. Recreational fishing in the region generates an estimated $31.7 million in regional spending. The Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile trail running from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland passes through Westmoreland, Somerset, and Fayette counties and attracted more than 1 million visitors in 2016, generating more than $40 million in annual revenue for nearby businesses.

Management actions should be initiated to improve degraded water quality that is threatening the resilience of regional watersheds, and to ensure the continued protection of those that are healthy and resilient. Improving currently impaired watersheds would provide opportunities for more recreation and spending in the region, which would support more local jobs and businesses and improve visitor experience.

Due to restoration efforts in the Indian Creek watershed, wild populations of trout are returning to and thriving in streams severely impacted by AMD in the past. Photo courtesy of Jace Marsh.

The ecosystem service values that stand to be enhanced by the resource management scenarios discussed in this analysis make an economic case for fruitful work that communities, agencies, and individuals should invest in now.


This project was financed in part by a grant from the Community Conservation Partnerships Program, Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund, under the administration of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation.

Scarlet Tanager. Photo courtesy of Kerry Bell.

Additional Funding Provided By:

Casselman River Watershed Association - Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited - Community Foundation for the Alleghenies - Forbes Trail Trout Unlimited - Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds - Jacobs Creek Watershed Association - Lincoln Highway Heritage Area - Loyalhanna Watershed Association - Mountain Watershed Association, home of the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper - Somerset Conservation District

Thank you to the Steering Committee Members, for their commitment to the project and whose guidance, input, and assistance in identifying local information sources made this project possible:

Beverly Braverman (Mountain Watershed Association) - Susan Huba (Loyalhanna Watershed Association) - Len Lichvar (Somerset Conservation District) - Monty Murty (Forbes Trail Trout Unlimited) - Marla Papernick (Pennsylvania Environmental Council) - Robb Piper (Forester from Cambria County) - Carla Ruddock (Mountain Watershed Association) - Deb Simko (Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited)

Key-Log Economics is an independent consultancy that brings more than 50 years of combined experience analyzing the economic features of land and resource use and related policy. Key-Log Economics remains solely responsible for the content of this report, the underlying research methods, and the conclusions drawn. Key-Log Economics uses the best available data and employs appropriate and feasible estimation methods, but nevertheless make no claim regarding the extent to which these estimates will match the actual magnitude of economic effects that may occur under the scenarios explored in this analysis.

Works Cited for the information presented in this design is available within the document at the link above.

Information presented in this Adobe Spark Page was designed by Hannah Spencer (Outreach Coordinator at Mountain Watershed Association).

Created By
Hannah Spencer


Created with images by Nathan Anderson - "untitled image" • Yuhan Du - "The waterfall of Ohiopyle" • Angie Lopez - "Nature, nature and more nature."