OHIOPYLE -- The strike was solid and distinctive as a fat and brightly colored rainbow trout attacked a Pheasant Tail nymph bouncing across the rocky bottom of the Youghiogheny River during a recent float trip through parts of Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County.
The guided fishing adventure was part of a weekend-long Trout Unlimited media tour focused on potential impacts of shale gas extraction on trout fishing in Pennsylvania's Appalachian Mountains.
Beneath the Yough, far under the river's rocks -- as deep as a mile below the aquifer and layers of stratified stone -- a seam of Marcellus Shale is being tapped for natural gas. New technologies for horizontal drilling present great opportunity for the industry and local landowners, as well as reasonable concerns that the new boom in energy extraction could leave the region in the same damaged state as the last boom.
Resource harvesting in the 19th and early 20th century left much of the Chestnut Ridge a mess. Clear cutting by the lumber industry led to severe erosion that blanketed river and stream bottoms with sediment that choked out macro-invertebrates. Coal mine drainage turned the Youghiogheny into a toxic gutter devoid of the once-prolific trout.
Since then, federal and state regulations, the work of non-profit groups and new technologies led to the reclamation of the Youghiogheny valley. The Upper and Middle Yough are now considered among the best trout waters in the Laurel Highlands. Throughout the region, environmental tourism is thriving.
"We want to keep it this way," said Katy Dunlap, eastern water project director of Trout Unlimited. In recent years, the national office of the non-profit coldwater fisheries advocacy group, which has lobbied for dam removal in Northeast United States, has turned its attention to Pennsylvania shale gas.
"We're not opposed to fracking, we just think it shouldn't happen everywhere," said Dunlap. "We think responsible energy development can be done, but some places present specific recreational and environmental interests for hunters and anglers."
Leaks of fracking chemicals at the extraction level are not TU's primary concern. The more immediate threats are on the surface, Dunlap said. Among them are water extraction policies, erosion and surface spills and leaks that pose the greatest risk to fishing.
"Each well uses 3 to 5 million gallons of water that's extracted from a stream, river or lake," said Dunlap. "There's less oversight of water extraction in the Ohio River drainage than in the rest of the state, and we're concerned about what that could mean to trout waters."
Since 2012, the state Department of Environmental Protection has required the shale gas industry, but not other energy industries, to seek permits for activities that could result in erosion. Dunlap said erosion from service roads is minimal, but pipeline construction remains a concern.
The number of fracking-related spills and leaks has decreased since 2008, but TU is concerned about Pennsylvania regulations that allow the placement of well pads as close as 100 feet from a stream. The potential damage from the contamination of a stocked trout stream is troubling, said Dunlap, but impacts on sensitive Class A native trout waters, such as Bear Run -- the home of the world-famous Fallingwater home -- would be devastating. Trout Unlimited and state Fish and Boat Commission monitoring of documented and potential Class A waters provides baseline water quality data.
"State regulators review the drilling, construction and water management plans," reads a Marcellus Shale Coalition website, and environmental safeguards include "erosion and sedimentation controls, fugitive dust controls, multiple layers of well casing and cement to protect potable water aquifers and water wells for every natural gas well."
Radisav Vidic of the University of Pittsburgh's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department said that in recent years the shale gas industry has harvested energy in the Laurel Highlands without causing serious or permanent damage to the region's trout streams.
"We haven't seen any systematic evidence that water quality in Pennsylvania is getting any worse," he said. "A this point, it's a monitoring issue."