Exploring an AMD Stream

Lenka P.

Lenka P., is a Brookies alum and is a junior at Halifax High School. She is a Chesapeake Bay Foundation Student Leader and just returned from the CBF Student Leadership Course “Growing From Our Roots”. Lenka writes about her experience of seeing an acid mine drainage stream firsthand.


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has a Student Leadership program which I am a part of. Each summer Student Leadership Courses are offered and this summer, I attended the course “Growing From Our Roots.” During the course we traveled around Pennsylvania discovering the ecosystems that are in the PA section of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. We canoed Penns Creek, learned about fish and fly fished with Trout Unlimited, and hiked around Elk County to find elk. My peers and I explored the Arboretum at Penn State and saw an old growth hemlock forest at Alan Seeger Natural Area. Out of all of these experiences, the activity that stuck out most to me was when we visited the confluence of a pristine stream and an AMD Stream in Elk County.

AMD, or Abandoned Mine Drainage, is when mines leach chemicals, such as iron, into waterways and is a very common form of water pollution caused by mining. AMD is one of the largest sources of stream impairment in Pennsylvania. When we traveled to Elk County, we visited Winslow Hill where there had been coal mines. The mines were covered up, but AMD still runs into Porcupine Run. At Winslow Hill there is a limestone pendulum which uses limestone to make the water of Porcupine Run more basic, but the stream is still impaired.

Over the course, we explored the confluence of Dents Run, a pristine stream, and Porcupine Run, downstream of the limestone pendulum. The pH of Dents Run was 6.5. The pH of Porcupine Run was 5.5. This is an improvement since the installation of the limestone pendulum. The pH of where both streams come together as a continuation of Dents Run was also 5.5.

Confluence of water of Porcupine Run (left) & Dents Run (right). Photo credit to  Jackson Ramsey, CBF Student Leader.

Aquatic macroinvertebrate testing is done in streams to determine water quality. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are insects that live in water and are large enough to be seen with the naked eye. It is often done alongside chemistry testing. Testing for macroinvertebrates is better because the macroinvertebrates live in the stream for a majority of their lives. If there is pollution or poor water quality, only tolerant macroinvertebrates can live in the stream. When water chemistry testing is done, it only takes a snapshot of what the water quality is like at that exact place and time.

When aquatic macroinvertebrate testing was done on upper Dents Run, many sensitive macroinvertebrates were found along with a salamander, and the water chemistry showed good results. When the confluence was searched for macroinvertebrates, a few tolerant macroinvertebrates were found, including a crayfish. The water chemistry reflected that the stream is not in good health, but it can support life. Porcupine Run’s water quality showed a lack of nutrients, and even though having too much is not good in waterways, not having enough can cause impairment.

Underwater view of a stream affected by AMD. Photo credit to Creative Commons.

When we got to the streams, we broke up into groups of which stream we would test. I jumped at the chance to test Porcupine Run because I had never been in an AMD stream before. I wanted to see what I could find. I thought that I may find a few pollution tolerant macroinvertebrates. Even though I knew that the water quality would be bad, I didn’t think it would be devoid of life, especially since there was a limestone pendulum upstream.

Throughout the years, I have kicked for aquatic macroinvertebrates countless times. Kicking for aquatic macroinvertebrates is when a net is used to kick up macroinvertebrates for collection. I already knew about AMD streams and what I would find, or more specifically not find, but when I kicked in Porcupine Run and found no life other than a couple of water striders that probably came from Dents Run, it was a completely new experience for me. In every stream that I have ever kicked for macroinvertebrates, no matter how sub-optimal the conditions, I have found at least some life. Before this, I only had the experience of kicking for macroinvertebrates in Central PA and around the Chesapeake Bay, but never in an AMD stream. Finding no life in Porcupine Run was eye opening for me.

At this course, I had the experience of seeing a dead stream. Seeing this allowed me to make the connection to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Toxic forms of water pollution, such as high nutrient levels, are not always visible, but their effects can be felt throughout the food chain. The area of Porcupine Run that we explored was only a few yards away from the pristine Dents Run, but the two streams told completely different stories. Though the impairment of Porcupine Run and the Chesapeake Bay do not have the same cause, seeing the stream is an excellent representation of what is happening with dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay.

This dismaying experience of finding no life in an AMD stream reiterates how important the conservation work that my peers and I are doing. I know that I will continue to do all that I can to protect the world around us.
Confluence of Porcupine Run (left) & Dents Run (right).
Photo credit to Emily Thorpe, CBF Student Leadership Coordinator.