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December 5, 2013

River in running for state title

JOHNSTOWN — The Kiski-Conemaugh River, like the Stonycreek, is touted as an environmental success story – a waterway on the rebound from decades of coal and steel industry ills.

The rivers’ supporters hope they’ll soon share another trait: Pennsylvania River of the Year.

Just two years after the Stonycreek won the honor, the Kiski-Conemaugh – the Kiskiminetas River and its 70-mile-long tributary, the Conemaugh River – is one of five waterways in the state in the running for the 2014 title.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has pushed the contest annually to draw attention to the state’s rivers and their offerings.

The top vote-getter will receive a $10,000 leadership grant that river supporters could use to schedule a year’s worth of events celebrating the waterway, said DCNR’s acting secretary, Ellen Ferretti.

“The fact the Kiski-Conemaugh is a finalist ... highlights just how far it has come in recent years,” said Allegheny Ridge Corp.’s Laura Hawkins, coordinator for the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway that includes the Kiski-Conemaugh.

The rivers flow from Johnstown to Freeport in Armstrong County along a path once dominated by coal and steel industries that built towns along the way but badly degraded the rivers and their tributaries.

It has taken decades, but much of the Kiski-Conemaugh has been brought back to life, Hawkins said. Areas once orange from acid mine drainage now are clear and home to aquatic life, fishing spots and trailside attractions, she said.

Conemaugh Valley Conservancy President Mike Burk pointed to downtown Johnstown, where the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh rivers form the Conemaugh, as an example of why the Kiski-Conemaugh deserves River of the Year consideration.

“The amount of drainage removed from that river by the AMD project in St. Michael is amazing,” Burk said of the highly touted project by Rosebud Mining and state and local environmental groups.

The treatment effort has eliminated the distinct sulfuric smell and vastly improved the water’s quality and appearance in that section of the river.

“That alone should make it part of the competition, if not the river of the year,” Burk said.

Hawkins also pointed to the river’s many draws. Home to the 1,560-foot-deep Conemaugh Gorge west of Johnstown and a handful of major hiking and biking trails – Path of the Flood in Johnstown, West-Penn Trail near Saltsburg and Blairsville’s Riverfront Trail – the river is now a hub for fishing, boating and other recreation, she said.

The National Park Service recently designated the Kiski-Conemaugh River Trail a National Recreation Trail.

“There’s a lot of components to this river’s story,” Hawkins said.

The other River of the Year finalists are the Schuylkill River in the southeast, Ohio River in the west, Brodhead Creek Watershed in the Poconos and West Branch of the Susquehanna in central Pennsylvania.

Online voting closes Dec. 27. Those interested in casting a vote or learning more about the rivers can visit www.pariveroftheyear.org for more information.

David Hurst is a reporter with The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tddavidhurst.

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