Conewango stays high, muddy and really fast

The rains keep falling, down, down.

Sometimes, one creek remains high and muddy longer than the others.

The Conewango Creek Watershed Association (CCWA) has some explanations for why its body of water is late to become lower and clearer.

“Weather is complicated and so are watersheds,” CCWA Volunteer Board Member Elizabeth Dropp said. “There are many factors that affect how fast a stream will rise and fall.”

Factors include how much rain falls, where it falls, how quickly it falls, wetlands, and human development.

“The amount of rain falling and its intesity constantly change as the rain clouds cross the landscape and one watershed may get inches more rain than the one right next to it,” Dropp said. “Two adjacent watersheds may receive the same amount of rainfall but one gets it in four hours and another gets it in 24 hours. The one that gets it in four hours will have a lot more runoff and the runoff will come off the land faster and into the streams faster so the stream will rise and fall faster than the other stream that gets the rain over a longer period of time.”

The Conewango watershed covers 900 square miles, she said. “It covers about 70 percent of Chautauqua County (N.Y.), some of Cattaraugus County (N.Y.) and a northern portion of Warren County.”

Chautauqua Lake is in the watershed and feeds the creek.

“It may take weeks in some cases for the water from the upper watershed to get to the Warren portion of the Conewango Creek,” Dropp said. “There is a small dam on the outlet of Chautauqua Lake where they can slow the release of water from the lake to reduce flooding downstream somewhat.”

That would keep the water the creek’s waters high longer

“Another reason Conewango Creek may be slower draining is that there are many hundreds of acres of wetlands on the main stem and lower Conewango Creek,” Dropp said. “Akeley Swamp is a small portion of that big wetland system.”

“Wetlands are nature’s sponge,” she said. “The creek water rises, it spreads out into the wetlands, slows down, drops sediment and stays there for some time. Then as the creek water goes down the excess water in the wetland slowly drains out into the streams again. This a healthy and normal thing.”

Water in the wetlands feed and recharges ground water.

“Humans have considered wetland areas as ‘wasteland’ for centuries, but we now know that they are critical to flood and erosion control, stream level regulation, water quality and ground water replenishment,” she said.

The color of the water could be a function of human influence.

“The Conewango Creek is known as a ‘muddy’ creek,” Dropp said. “But every creek in our region will be muddy at times during each year.”

“In general, the less humans have changed the land, the less muddy they will be,” she said. “The Conewango has a big watershed and there are a lot of people living in it and affecting the land in various ways. Housing and commercial development, agriculture, logging, gas and oil development as well as other activities affect the land and cause erosion. Again this is true in all watersheds, but the Conewango Watershed has probably over 100,000 people living in it. More people equals more changes to the land which equals more erosion.”

Even the long-ago formation of the creek plays a role in the brown color visible now.

“Our geology also affects how muddy the Conewango Creek is,” Dropp said. “The lower portions of the watershed have extensive areas which are glacially deposited materials that are more erodible than average contributing to more sediment being in the creek than most other creeks in our area.”

The association is working to educate the public about the creek, the watershed, and the influence people and human development have on them.

From rain gardens to finding alternatives to chemical herbicides and pesticides, there are actions individuals can take to improve the health of the watershed.

“Another part of the message we want to get across is that each one of us can do small things that have positive impacts on the watershed and therefore our streams,” she said.