Spring Creek … A Common Name for an Uncommon Stream

Spring Creek. The name typically conjures up an image of Fisherman’s Paradise and the widely known trout stream of PA’s Centre County. But there are any number of lesser-known spring creeks scattered around the commonwealth.

Two of them are found right here in Dauphin County:

  • One flows through the town of Hershey and into Swatara Creek, just downstream from Hershey Park.
  • The other originates east of Harrisburg and ends its journey near the northern border of Steelton.

It is the westernmost Dauphin County Spring Creek that has captured our attention ever since discovering in 1996 that this stream harbored a reproducing wild brown trout population. It is also the same stream which Joe Armstrong, in his excellent “Guide to Pennsylvania Limestone Streams,” described as “a bombed-out limestone stream” and “a dream TU project if some chapter is looking for a very tough situation.”

The “dream” began to take shape after the PA Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) 1996 and 1997 electroshocking surveys confirmed a trout biomass in sufficient numbers for Spring Creek to be classified as a Class B Reproducing Brown Trout Fishery. Equally important was the discovery of several different age classes, indicating that natural reproduction had been occurring for sometime in this urban stream. Other studies conducted during that same period by PFBC and the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection (PADEP) concluded generally that water temperature and chemistry were sufficiently good, particularly in the middle reaches of the stream, to support this fishery. The predominant macroinvertebrate species collected were Gammarus (scuds), Hydropsyche (caddisflies), and Orthocladina (midges), with lesser numbers of Ephemerella and Baetis (mayflies) present.

The main stem of Spring Creek arises east of I-83 in the Rutherford Heights area, and is joined by several tributaries originating in the Colonial Park and Penbrook neighborhoods. A major limestone spring, which emerges at the old springhouse between Derry and Paxton streets in Paxtang Borough, provides a shot of cold, alkaline water which allows the trout to survive downstream in Spring Creek. Above this spring, Spring Creek is strictly a warmwater stream with a minimal fish population.

A major limiting factor affecting the present and future health of Spring Creek is storm water runoff from increased commercial development in the watershed. The volume of water entering Spring Creek during major rain events results in serious flooding in Paxtang Borough, and critical erosion and deposition of sediments farther downstream. This runoff also brings with it potentially dangerous materials flushed from the many impervious surfaces adjacent to the stream. Sudden rises in water temperature also can result during summer rainstorms.

As a result of the surveys conducted in 1996 and 1997, PFBC recommendations called for management of Spring Creek under the Natural Yield Option, which means that statewide regulations with no stocking would apply. Several DFTU members familiar with the potential of the stream initially believed that PFBC should be petitioned to consider some form of Special Regulations, at least for a portion of Spring Creek. But given the urban setting within a fairly large population center, it was later felt that the best practice was not to draw undue attention to this rather fragile stretch of water through the posting of signs, etc.

PFBC also drew up some preliminary plans for habitat improvement devices and issued a $2000 Adopt-a-Stream Grant for DFTU’s use in reclaiming this stream for the wild browns. But as time passed and the ever-increasing negative effects of stormwater runoff were observed, it was decided to do nothing until such time as the entire watershed could be assessed and evaluated. It became obvious that placing a few artificial structures in the stream would not solve the long-term problems of Spring Creek.

In 1999 , DFTU requested the Harrisburg-based environmental consulting firm, Skelly and Loy, to assist in preparing a comprehensive Spring Creek watershed assessment and remediation proposal. Our proposal, submitted for funding under PADEP’s Growing Greener grants program, was not selected during the first round of grant applications. But we persevered, and when round two came up in the fall of 2000, the proposal was scaled back somewhat, resubmitted, and this time DFTU came out a winner. Letters of support for our efforts were provided by State Senator Jeffrey Piccola, Dauphin County Conservation District, the City of Harrisburg, the Capital Area Greenbelt Association, PA Fish & Boat Commission, and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

The assessment work by Skelly and Loy, which began in March 2001, encompassed the entire watershed, identifying and mapping all watershed features, locations of storm water discharges and basins, and the level of impairment evident in all reaches of the stream. As a result of recommendations contained in the assessment report, in March 2003, an 850 foot section of the stream was restored as a demonstration project, using fluvial geomorphology practices as prescribed by David Rosgen, i.e. the Rosgen Method. Aquatic Resource Restoration Co. (ARRC) was selected as the contractor for this work.

In 2005 and 2007, two additional reaches totaling approximately 4400 feet of stream corridor restoration were completed by ARRC, incorporating a variety of rock vanes, rock and log structures and root wads, as well as extensive streambank grading and filling. Both of these projects were funded primarily with Growing Greener grant money. All told, the total funding from PADEP for the assessment and all three phases of the design and construction work amounted to over $400,000.