Rebecca Dunlap heaved on the 30-pound electrofishing backpack as she gasped, "We look like Ghost Busters!"
Dunlap, biologist and manager of the Eastern Abandoned Mine Program at Trout Unlimited, and Dr. Shawn Rummel, the field and research coordinator ("our resident doctor," Dunlap calls him) were about to electrofish Middle Branch, a tributary to Twomile Run in the lower Kettle Creek watershed.
On the way to Middle Branch, Dunlap called out to Rummel the items they needed for the trip.
"Electroshocker-check! Waterproof camera-check! Waders-check!" Rummel called from the back of her black pick-up truck that, not for the first time, would see back roads piled with mud.
Now Dunlap stood in the clear, flowing waters of Middle Branch, her waders providing insulation against the electrical shocks conducted through the water between the two electrodes dangling from her backpack.
If a fish swam between the two electrodes in the water, it would receive an electrical shock and become temporarily stunned and float to the surface.
While looking like a Ghost Buster may be fun, Dunlap and Rummel weren't just playing in the water. They were there to measure the population numbers, health of the fish (by its length and weight), and the reproduction occurring in the stream. They electrofish Middle Branch's entire stream length (about one mile) once a year.
Last year, they only found four trout; the year before, they'd found none. By the end of the mile this year, Dunlap stood sweating, but beaming. They'd caught 26 trout, measuring in size from 80 mL to 164 mL. That's a sixfold increase in just one year.
Those findings are especially significant because Middle Branch had been far more acidic. According to The West Branch Susquehanna Recovery Benchmark Project released in August 2011, "In 1995 the average acidity at the mouth of Middle Branch was 48 mg/L."
After the installation of the Middle Branch Passive Treatment System, the average acidity at the mouth was only 4 mg/L, according to the study. That's a 92 percent difference.
The Middle Branch Passive Treatment System intercepts acid mine drainage (AMD) flowing from abandoned mines and involves "four vertical flow ponds, an oxidation/settling pond, and an aerobic wetland," according to the study. These ponds work to naturally remove metals and acidity through layers of organic matter and limestone the water passes through. The clean water then flows into Middle Branch, which flows into Twomile Run.
TU and its partners tackled the problems of the Kettle Creek watershed in 1998 and have been implementing treatment systems since. That work is needed, according to Dunlap.
"Kettle Creek and Tangascootack are the most downstream major AMD-impacted tributaries that enter the river," she said.
Now that they've restored Middle Branch, they're working on Twomile Run and Robins Hollow. The point of the restoration work is to reconnect the trout populations, Rummel said. There are pockets of healthy fish, but the AMD pollution acts as a barrier and isolates them so they aren't intermixing. They should be mating and becoming genetically diverse so that one catastrophe doesn't wipe out the whole population, Rummel said.
The headwaters of Twomile Run are actually quite "pristine," Dunlap said, and contain Class A brook trout (the healthiest), but where pollution comes in from an old surface mining site, there's no trout.
"If we improve the rest of the stream, trout can repopulate downstream, no stocking required. That's what was done with Middle Branch," Dunlap said.
She drove up the mountain, plowing through thick ridges of mud in the middle of the road plowed up by dump trucks heavy with limestone. On the way, she stopped at what she called a "kill zone" from AMD. The rocks and grass in the area were tinged with a rust-orange hue, the pine trees barely supporting lifeless needles.
As she continued driving, Rummel pointed out Twomile Run flowing to the right of the road.
"If someone who didn't know better saw this stream, they might say it's beautiful; little do they know that it's actually dead," Rummel said.
When they reached the top of the mountain, they drove onto the Twomile Run surface reclamation site. This is where TU recontoured 57 acres of the land and revegetated the mine, she said. This helps the mine water drain correctly. Grassy hills rolled and baby trees were springing up where none had been before.
The reclamation project was completed in 2005 and was successful, reducing flow, acidity, and metals flowing into Twomile Run by 30 to 50 percent.
While waiting for trucks to pass by, another trucker walked up to Dunlap's idling pick-up. He leaned on her door and made small talk about the work they've been doing to restore the area. He said he transports limestone up to the area.
"I believe they've been digging pits and putting bleeder lines in the pits and it...purifies the water," he said.
Dunlap smiled. "That's right," she said. As she pulled away, she commented that not only does this work benefit the environment, but it gives people jobs, as well. "Just like that truck driver," she said.