River Conservation Plan

We have worked in partnership with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council to prepare a River Conservation Plan (RCP).

RCPs are important for communities with unique ecosystems like the Big Spring. These plans allow us to express concrete goals and actions that we plan to take to protect the Big Spring for future generations. Our goal is to have healthy, clean water that supports our community and wildlife.

You can read a summary of the plan below, or click here to view the document in its entirety. We also prepared a chart with our management priorities, which you can take a look at here.

Executive Summary

Big Spring Watershed Association (BSWA) formed in 2001 with the goals of protecting and managing wild native trout populations of Big Spring, and the other natural, cultural, and historical resources of the watershed. This plan reviews these resources in detail, relying on a broad array of partners and public input, in order to provide best possible information to policy makers and to prioritize project opportunities for meeting these goals. These priorities are provided in the management matrix (Appendix 6). The plan was prepared with a matching grant to BSWA to begin delineation of contributing areas through hydrogeological study. Administrative assistance was provided by Pennsylvania Environmental Council staff, other critical input was provided by a steering committee and others as noted above, and the plan was authored by BSWA board members.
Big Spring and its topographical surface watershed are located in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania twelve miles west of Carlisle, PA (Appendix 1 Map 1). The stream and surrounding region are characterized by karst, or limestone topography, where groundwater flow occurs preferentially through limestone fractures, conduits, and caves. This flow often occurs between surface watershed divides. Hydrological tracers in an accompanying study indicated linear flow patterns down-valley to Big Spring, from far outside the surface watershed). While most of this plan will address the surface watershed, the area encompassing the documented regional flow needs immediate attention. Dye trace results proved direct hydrologic connection between runoff from impervious surface to Big Spring, via a sinkhole in a failed stormwater detention basin near the Burd Run/Middle Spring surface watershed 5.5 miles to the west.
Present impacts to Big Spring within the stream corridor include legacy sediment, farm fragmentation and development, stormwater runoff, sewage treatment plant effluent, past mining activity that still introduces sediment, and impervious surface of the state fish hatchery that carries runoff directly into the headwaters. Most impairment of the once renowned native brook trout fishery and the supporting aquatic community was very likely caused by fish culture at a private hatchery in the mid-1900s and at the state hatchery at the stream’s source between 1972 and 2001. Wild trout populations persisted above the private hatchery and are now recovering below the closed state hatchery. Other influences may have included sedimentation from mining and agriculture in the early 1900s, although brook trout persisted in apparently high densities during this time.
The largest population center in the watershed area, both historic and present day, is the Borough of Newville. Two other minor centers of population are Springfield and Stoughstown. All three towns share a rich cultural and industrial history beginning with white settlement around 1735. Partnering with the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority, the Newville Borough Council has taken advantage of the town’s proximity to outdoor attractions that include not only the Big Spring Creek but the Colonel Denning and Pine Grove Furnace State Parks. The development of ecology and heritage tourism became the cornerstone of Newville’s Town Center 21 Plan. The first step in the realization of this concept was the building of a trailhead center and parking lot at the Cumberland Valley Rails to Trails juncture with Newville. The Cumberland Valley Railroad (trail site) was built to Newville in 1837 and operated until the mid-1900s bringing fishermen regularly from Harrisburg and Philadelphia to fish the legendary waters of the Creek (Map 5).

The Pennsylvania Turnpike runs east/west, approximately 3 miles outside the Borough but there is no direct link to the watershed area (no Newville exit). The scenic Big Spring Road (State Route 3007) runs along the Big Spring Creek and bisects the watershed area. Newville is a self-sufficient town with a full-service grocery, a pharmacy,and a well-stocked hardware store. Newville’s largest celebration is a yearly entertainment and craft vendor event called the Fountain Festival, which is named after the town’s historic architectural feature. Many town residents have been living in Newville for generations and can trace their ancestry back to the original land settlers around 1750. As a consequence of this, the Newville Historical Society was begun in 1966. Events are not restricted to the town center itself. The Big Spring Watershed Association (BSWA) has held an annual ―Discovery Day along the Big Spring‖ each year since 2002. Discovery Day is a drive/walk educational/fun event held in four of the PFBC parking lots along the Creek. Big Spring Road (SR3007) is utilized for charity walks in support of MS and has frequently been the site of 5K runs. Because the road traverses a short distance–3.5 miles from town to headwaters–it is extremely accessible and BSWA envisions it utilized and developed as a cultural resource.

Outstanding features of Big Spring are many, and include historical and recovering native and trophy wild trout populations, good public access in the reaches above Newville with five parking areas owned by PA Fish and Boat Commission (PAFBC) and a Rails-to-Trails crossing in Newville, historical mill sites, farms, associated spring houses, and other structures and communities of historical importance. Moreover, the pastoral and scenic beauty of the stream corridor is appreciated greatly by outdoor enthusiasts and the local residents of the watershed. The unique limestone areas at the source and along the corridor are also important habitats for a variety of wildlife. The area surrounding the source springs is recognized as an outstanding geologic feature of statewide significance.

The geology of the watershed area is characterized by karst or limestone features. While buffered from acidity, natural and anthropogenic acids readily dissolve the carbonate rocks, creating preferential flow paths of water through solution channels that typically occur along bedding planes and fractures. This activity is responsible for cave and sinkhole formation within and outside the surface watershed. These features, along with closed depressions, dry valleys, and springs of substantial discharge are typical of karst environments, and should be acknowledged along with inter-basin, regional groundwater flow in any development of groundwater or geologic resources in the area. Groundwater flow velocities can be exceedingly rapid, up to 3 km/day, leaving little time for surface pollutants to be cleansed from the aquifer.

The entire surface watershed of Big Spring to Newville Borough is within the Hagerstown-Duffield Association, a soil association derived from weathered limestone occurring on valley floors and moderately steep slopes and upland areas.

Approximately, 50% of the Big Spring Watershed contains Class I, II, and III Soils. Prime farmland in Cumberland County includes Class I and II soils. Pennsylvania has classified Class III soils as ―soils of statewide importance‖ due to their productive capabilities. Prime agricultural soils (Classes I and II) make up approximately 15% of the surface watershed and are a non-renewable natural resource of deep, well-drained and fertile soil (Map 8).

Since 1989, over 10,300 acres of farmland have been preserved in Cumberland County. The Big Spring Watershed contains approximately 448.3 acres of this preserved farmland on four farms. The Big Spring Watershed is located within a priority area for future agricultural conservation easements based on concentrating preservation efforts on areas surrounding existing preserved farms. The Big Spring Watershed includes approximately 1,900 acres of land enrolled in Agricultural Security Areas within North Newton, West Pennsboro, South Newton, and Penn Townships.

Upper Big Spring is comprised of two major source springs. The west spring provides most flow, and infrequent sediment release, and the east spring provides less but constant, clear flow. Cool Spring is an important contributing spring to Big Spring that presently serves as public water supply to the Borough of Newville. Stage measurements on Big Spring for 1991-2003 show that water level closely follows level of groundwater in the region. Although stage level in Big Spring only fluctuated 8 inches during this time, discharge varied between 16.7 cfs and 62.75 cfs. Therefore, conclusions about impacts of land or water use on flow need to be based on discharge estimates from an accurate rating curve. The U.S.G.S. recently installed a data-logging level gauge and is calibrating level to discharge. This installation was the result of a permit condition for the Pennsy Supply Quarry, permitted within the surface watershed in 2004, to constantly monitor discharge as well as turbidity and temperature.

Important forested floodplain wetlands occur on Big Spring near its confluence with Conodoguinet Creek where they form from flooding of this large-order stream (Map 10) Big Spring does develop some shrub wetland and marshland along its riparian zone in its mid-reaches above Newville. This area is used by a variety of waterfowl, and other wetland-dependent wildlife. Temporary ponds or vernal pools, although they occur outside the surface watershed, form along the base of South Mountain where Big Spring’s waters originate. These wetlands form from karst depressions at depth and are critical habitat for many of the regions amphibians and reptiles. A recent Tri-County Natural Areas Inventory update (2005) noted that temporary ponds near Thompson Hollow (tributary of Burd Run and Middle Spring and a likely contributing source to Big Spring) as a priority conservation area.

Floodplains also occur predominantly near the confluence with the Condoguinet. Since Big Spring itself does not flood substantially, it produces narrow riparian zones for most of its length. Some depressional wetlands form in the watershed due to the karst geology, particularly where soil plugs form in sinks, however there are not major lakes and ponds in the watershed.

The Borough of Newville discharges treated wastewater into Big Spring on the north end of the Borough. This is presently the most substantial permitted discharge into Big Spring. Big Spring school district is also a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit holder. The impacts of these discharges have not been thoroughly investigated. One concern given development pressure in the region is that Newville may draw-down flow of Big Spring, directly through expanded pumping or indirectly by drawing down level in adjacent Cool Spring. Decreased flow in the channel, combined with additional hook-ups to the wastewater treatment facility, will further degrade water quality unless concomitant upgrades in treatment are made.

Low dissolved oxygen and PCBs in sediments have been attributed to hatchery effluent below the Big Spring Fish Culture Station when in operation. Sowbugs conducted PCBs from sediments into higher trophic levels (white suckers and slimy sculpins) on Big Spring, and this bioaccumulation was greatest immediately below hatchery outfall. It is uncertain the extent to which PCBs remain in sediments of Big Spring.

The practice of winter-spreading cow manure is common in the surface watershed and along the presumed flow path between Southhampton Township and Big Spring. Limestone regions are most sensitive to non-point pollution, even with careful waste management practices. Given farming practices of manure spreading during the dormant season when there is no crop nutrient demand, waste disposal into sinkholes, and neglect of on-lot septic systems, there is tremendous potential to concentrate non-point runoff into Big Spring and similar streams. Additionally, failed detention basins in developed areas similarly can concentrate contaminants in conduit flow to Big Spring, as sinkholes develop from adding water to, or pumping water from the aquifer.

Due primarily to controversy surrounding closing of the state fish hatchery in 2001, there has been intensive water quality monitoring on Big Spring. Dissolved substances such as ammonia (NH3), toxic to aquatic organism even in small quantities, and Chemical and Biological Oxygen Demand (CBOD), elevated under high inputs of pollution, have declined substantially in the upper reaches of Big Spring since hatchery closure.

In addition to hydrologic dye tracing, the hydrological study associated with this plan has included background fluorescence measurement of Big Spring, surrounding wells, and surrounding springs. This analysis has detected possible animal wastes in shallow springs near Big Spring (Mt. Rock and others) and also suggests, based on similarities in organic acid content, that wells near Big Spring and most of the springs in the valley originate from a similar water source.

Nutrient monitoring near the source of Big Spring by PA-DEP and by Shippensburg University students routinely records elevated nitrate approaching the EPA drinking water standard of 10 ppm or mg/l. Soluble phosphorus often is elevated over 1 or even 2 mg/l during winter. In summer of 2002 after hatchery closure, upper Big Spring demonstrated some of the highest predawn channel water dissolved oxygen (DO) values measured among area spring creeks (6.3-8.4 ppm). In contrast, values obtained by Black and Macri in 1990s were below 5 ppm, the lower limit for trout. Dissolved Oxygen in trout redds (spawning areas in gravel) or redd attempts was above the critical 5 ppm in winter 2002 and 2003 in seven of ten wells sampled. Even in sediments with higher DO, much gravel was embedded in sand, leading to sub-optimal spawning habitat. Since that time, Putnam et al. (2004) has noted the importance of sandy upwelling areas for brook trout spawning. It is these areas that should be assessed for future spawning substrate studies on Big Spring.

Water quality as inferred from benthic monitoring is well documented for recent years on Big Spring. Initial surveys were accomplished by Eugene Macri, M.S. aquatic biology Shippensburg University, and coauthored with Dr. John Black, aquatic toxicologist, (Black and Macri 1997). These authors found Big Spring dominated by pollution tolerant invertebrates during the 1990s while the PAFBC hatchery was still in operation. Mr. Macri has followed up with a recent survey in 2002 that showed improvement in the stream upon hatchery closure. These results were corroborated by William Botts, water pollution biologist at PA-DEP, in repeated surveys between 1998 and 2004. Critical monitoring of Big Spring’s water quantity and clarity is occurring on a continuous basis by a U.S. Geological Survey gauging station situated on the old mill dam structure at the head of the stream. This installation monitors level, turbidity, and temperature.

Trout Populations during the 1970s thorugh1990s were greatly reduced from those found by Cooper and Scherer (1967). According to PAFBC, hatchery brook trout were stocked in Big Spring during the years this survey was conducted (810 adults and 5,000 fingerlings in 1961 and 1900 adults and 2000 fingerlings in 1962) and we do not know their contribution to the survey. Nevertheless Cooper and Scherer (1967) record an abundance of all age classes, typical of healthy wild populations. Populations of native, wild brook trout, as well as of rainbow trout have increased exponentially since hatchery closure in 2001, indicating a return to higher water quality. Care should be taken to differentiate between trout numbers and biomass, as biomass has declined from a loss of large fish which unnaturally dominated the population of the headwaters during hatchery operation. Below the headwaters, trout did not thrive during state hatchery operation. A 2005 survey near the stone arch bridge revealed 7 fish species besides trout. Species composition of fish probably has not changed over time according to PAFBC. Brook trout currently thrive in the upper-most reaches, non-native rainbow trout in mid-reaches, but neither species is thriving below Nealy Rd., where there is lower water quality and less restricted fishing regulations.

The stream corridor hosts high bird diversity (approximately 130 sighted to date), including possible or probably occurrence of species of concern such as black-crowned night heron, American black duck, and Northern bobwhite. Caves and older trees at the source springs provide good bat habitat. Reptiles and amphibians are understudied on Big Spring and other valley springs. The tri-county Natural Areas Report (2005) reports several areas of concern that fall outside of the surface watershed, but likely occur within the true contributing areas of Big Spring. Waterfowl hunting and trapping of small mammals (chiefly muskrat and mink) occurs along the state-owned land on upper Big Spring. Below Newville, land is posted to these consumptive activities.

For riparian and aquatic plants, several species are invasive and therefore of concern. These include Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tataria), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), and reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea). Additionally, Elodea canadensis (Canadian water weed) is an aquatic invasive that strongly controls sediment dynamics within the channel (Clapsaddle 2003). Potamageton crispus (curly pond weed) also an aquatic invasive, dominates slow deep waters in the middle reaches, and tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is rapidly invading disturbed areas along parking areas and roadsides. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is also listed in the Natural Areas Inventory (2005) as an important invasive in the Condoguinet floodplain. Watercress, water speedwell, and waterweed dominated the reach electrofished by Cooper and Scherer (1967), along with several other species. During years of hatchery operation, Big Spring was overtaken by watercress. Aquatic plant diversity is returning, but there are still occasional large blooms of water cress and algae from non-point nutrient loading.

Fishing is the most popular activity with diverse opportunities available including fly fishing in the upper specially regulated Catch and Release Fly Fishing Only reach and spin/bait fishing opportunities in the lower section. It is typical to see out of state licenses on cars parked along the stream, reflecting Big Spring renown as a trout fishery. Recreational hiking may see a boost if the Cumberland County Rails to Trails sections from Newville to Oakville or Newville to Carlisle are completed. Cumberland County is presently exploring the feasibility of extending the trail from Newville to Carlisle. Additional recreational facilities include the Newville Community Park that offers a large jungle gym, a covered pavilion for picnics, a baseball diamond with restrooms and 3 tennis courts with platforms for skateboarding. The streamside area of the historic Laughlin Mill provides picnic tables and is a popular fishing location for local residents. The PFBC maintains 4 large parking lots above Newville, offering easy access to all ages and physical capacities. One concern is landscaping around these parking lots, which could be improved to beautify the area and prevent runoff and off-road vehicle damage. There is a proposed pocket park near Greenridge Village Retirement Community that would be added once a large housing development along SR233 South is under construction. This would offer additional stream-side ground to residents of Green Ridge Village and West Pensboro Township. Green Ridge Village is presently working with BSWA directors to plan a trail and wildlife-friendly riparian plantings in this area. The winding lane of Big Spring Road provides an unsurpassed scenic byway from the headwaters to the historic Laughlin Mill in town.

A major concern of BSWA is the commercial development of warehouse/truck terminals within contributing areas of Big Spring. Housing development pressures are also increasing in the area. At the time of this writing, West Pennsboro has granted preliminary plan approval to a development on SR223 south of the town of Newville and in the surface watershed. Farming pressures include a large facility, such as a recently proposed hog farm near SR233. Areas to the south and east are zoned and being developed industrially, and these are likely contributing areas to Big Spring or Newville Municipal Spring (Cool Spring). Like any area with karst (limestone) geology, groundwater flow patterns are unpredictable based on surface topography. Springs such as Big Spring are derived from source water areas (recharge zones) far outside their surface watersheds. This characteristic is of paramount importance in protecting Big Spring Creek and its associated springs. Hydrological traces associated with the project have recently demonstrated that rapid infiltration of runoff into sinkholes will pour into the aquifer and be carried directly in limestone conduits to Big Spring. One of the PAFBC hatchery culverts acts as a conduit for roadside runoff to the stream’s headwaters. In one rain event in 2005, this resulted in substantial sediment loading to the stream. BSWA would like to work with PAFBC to mitigate this problem. Raceways exist at the old Thomas hatchery site further downstream, on the west side of the stream. These are in ruins and covered with successional forest. They should be examined further to determine if they contribute siltation to Big Spring through outlet pipes, or serve as habitat to wetland organisms.

The west spring of Big Spring is susceptible to sedimentation during strong rain events. This spring is connected to at least one large sinkhole to the west near Shippensburg that occurs, ironically, in a failing detention basin engineered to slow runoff from an impervious surface. A second failing detention basin exists at the Pennsy Quarry site within the surface watershed. The basin contains a sinkhole-drainage of turbid water observed to enter directly into the aquifer rather than percolate through the system of drainage pipes and rock-fill. While this situation was mitigated by PA DEP Mining and Pennsy Supply, it is likely that the drainage will open further with additional runoff and pumping. While this quarry is permitted to blast to sea-level (a depth of about 600 feet), the permit conditions require approval from PA-DEP to continue with each 50’ increase in depth beyond the water table. Given the position of this quarry on the down-gradient side of the regional flow pattern (east surface watershed), any likely influence to Big Spring would likely occur on the smaller east contributing source spring or to Cool Spring, another east-contributing source spring that is utilized for public water supply by the Borough of Newville.

It may not be ideal to increase public reliance on spring water given Big Spring’s continued down-stream recovery of blue-ribbon trout fishery, sediment buildup behind the Laughlin Mill dam at the proposed point of intake, and potential for rapid contaminant transport to these springs. On the other hand, if limited quantities are drawn off of Big Spring, sediment is removed, and water quality protected, the mill pond in Newville could become a much greater recreational and consumptive resource. There is a build-up of ―legacy sediment,‖ i.e. sediment from past agriculture (Clapsaddle 2003) and fish hatcheries (Hurd et al. 2004), particularly behind downstream-structures such as the Rt. 233 bridge and Laughlin Mill dam.

The current, major point-source discharge into Big Spring occurs from the Newville Borough wastewater treatment plant. While the facility appears to adequately treat existing wastewater, there is less capacity than potential future demand based on large developments being proposed in the area. Given the high nutrient levels of Big Spring as it discharges from the regional aquifer, it will be important to continue to limit discharge of additional nutrients and organic matter from wastewater treatment.

A major goal of BSWA is development of a Big Spring Greenway in order to ensure public access for fishing and other recreation. Given PAFBC ownership of most of the first half of the stream and the relatively undeveloped character below Newville, there is good opportunity to secure future, public enjoyment of Big Spring. Newville and the surrounding townships possess in Big Spring a potential economic as well as ecologic jewel of the Cumberland Valley. If water quality and quantity is protected along with public access, local businesses should benefit. Spring creeks are unique ecosystems that are sensitive to wading and boating in terms of stream substrate, bank stability and erosion, aquatic plant life, and benthic communities. The fishery has tremendous potential to offer trophy wild trout. The exponential increase in wild brook and rainbow trout, and increases in pollution-intolerant invertebrates should facilitate re-designation of most of the upper reaches of Big Spring to Exceptional Value (EV) and High Quality (HQ), or Class A status if water quality and habitat is improved. In light of these characteristics, it is important that recreational opportunities be expanded in a sustainable fashion encouraging non-consumptive and light impact activities.

The area surrounding Big Spring would benefit from cohesive, multi-municipal planning. As the Cumberland Valley develops, municipalities will need to plan jointly in order to provide adequate supplies of clean drinking water and sewage treatment, to prevent contamination of karst springs by confined animal feeding operations, quarries, the I81 and I76 corridors, and to minimize the impact of associated activities and development. As related to water resources, this regional focus is particularly critical in limestone areas due to their unique hydrology and lack of ability to filter contaminants. As related to environmental quality of Big Spring and safety of private and public water supplies in this sensitive karst area, careful waste, nutrient, and general contaminant-response planning is required. Continued delineation of source water to Big Spring through scientific study is also necessary to identify sources of non-point pollution. Hydrologic dye traces, such as the one described in this report, should be conducted from areas suspected to be hydrologically connected to Big Spring and Cool Spring, and careful monitoring of nutrients and contaminants should also be continued in order to protect Big Spring and the drinking water quality in Cool Spring.

Big Spring’s rural character, restored historical structures, colorful wild trout, and gin-clear waters with constant plant growth make it one of the more beautiful streams in Pennsylvania. Several historic structures occur along its length, including a restored grist mill in Newville, a barrel factory at the source that is currently being renovated by BSWA, and the historic village of Springfield just above the spring’s headwaters. BSWA is very interested in working with municipalities and the Green Ridge Village Retirement Community to facilitate handicapped fishing along Big Spring. It is critical that Big Spring maintain its scenic beauty and Newville its historical character. Therefore, development of a service industry fitting for eco-tourism and fishing is encouraged, but not at the expense of the watershed’s rural character. Greenway development to promote fishing access and outdoor recreation is a priority, along with silt removal for enhanced water quality and fish habitat, and regional planning that protects the resource from negative changes in water quality and quantity.

Highest management priorities of the steering committee and public who responded to surveys were to mitigate development pressures, coordinate regional planning, protect primary and secondary source waters (Big Spring, Cool Spring, and the related aquifer), mitigate sinkhole collapse in stormwater basins and infiltration galleries, reclassify the fishery to exceptional value/high quality, improve existing dams with focus on the Laughlin Mill dam and associated pond, and develop a restoration and reuse plan for the Barrel Factory, with potential conversion to museum. The public overwhelmingly stated their appreciation of the natural beauty, clear water, and scenic/historic character, as well as the value of the stream itself as a natural resource.