Swatara Creek basin of southeastern Pennsylvania--An evaluation of its hydrologic system

Water Supply Paper 1829

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Local concentrations of population in the Swatara Creek basin of Pennsylvania find it necessary to store, transport, and treat water because local supplies are either deficient or have been contaminated by disposal of wastes in upstream areas. Water in the basin is available for the deficient areas and for dilution of the coal-mine drainage in the northern parts and the sewage wastes in the southern parts.

Swatara Creek drains 576 square miles just east of Harrisburg, Pa., and is the largest tributary to the Susquehanna River from the north side below Harrisburg. It rises in the southern Pocono Mountains and flows southwestward across the Lebanon Plateau. On an average day Swatara Creek discharges more than 630 million gallons into the Susquehanna River at Middletown, Pa. In a year this amounts to about 23 inches of water over the entire basin and is the residual from an average annual precipitation of 45.5 inches. During an average year the flow in Swatara Creek from the upper third of the basin above Harper Tavern is always greater than 1,300 mgd (million gallons per day) for at least 15 days and is always greater than 25 mgd for at least 350 days. The daily streamflow from the basin averages 1.1 mgd per sq mi, but yields from different areas range from 0.97 to 1.22 mgd per sq mi. These variations are caused chiefly by differences in precipitation and land cover. The area of lowest yield is in the valleys west of Tremont, and the highest yields are in the Upper and Lower Little Swatara Creek subbasins.

At high and medium stages the chemical character of the water in the streams is suitable for public and private supplies. At lower stages, defending on the areas and the amounts of contamination by coal-mine drainage and sewage pollution, the natural flow may require some treatment. At low stages the chemical characteristics of the natural flow not affected by man is almost identical with that of the ground water in the area drained by the stream. In general, the total dissolved solids range from about 25 to 400 parts per million and the hardness is as much as about 300 parts per million.

The ground-water increment to the base flow of Swatara Creek averages about 240 mgd, or about 8.8 inches annually, for the basin. Generally, ground-water supplies in amounts of less than 0.5 mgd can be developed south of Blue Mountain. Supplies of several million gallons per day have been developed for industrial use from the permeable limestones in the south-central part of the basin. More intensive investigation in other parts of the basin would indicate areas where supplies of more than 0.5 mgd could be developed from properly spaced wells. The chemical character of water from wells depends largely on the host rock. In highly soluble rocks water contains large amount of dissolved solids; in more resistant rocks concentrations are lower. The chemical character of unpolluted ground water generally reflects the composition of the more readily soluble minerals in the local geologic environment. Areas contaminated by septic- tank effluent may have above normal amounts of nitrate and detergent products. Except where polluted, most ground water is suitable for public and industrial uses without extensive treatment.

Sites for storage of surface water exist in the part of the basin lying in the valley and ridge area. As much as 30 to 40 percent of the annual flow could be impounded for release as low-flow augmentation for dilution of mine drainage and other wastes in the basin. Low sediment yields of supplying drainage areas would ensure a long life expectancy of reservoirs at these sites.

Overbank flooding of the main stem of the Swatara Creek and its tributaries has occurred many times in the past. However, it has not been a hazard because urban development has not encroached on the flood plain. An inundation map of the August 1933 flood provides a basis that urban planners may use to avoid future damage. As water in the Swatara Creek moves downstream to the Susquehanna River, the flow is influenced consecutively by a large annual rainfall on the northern valley and ridge area, the wastes of surface and subsurface coal-mining activities, and less annual rainfall on the part of the basin lying in the Lebanon Plateau area; the flow is supplemented and further influenced by many tributaries and by the industrial and domestic wastes that are carried by these secondary streams.

The annual precipitation ranges from 52 inches at the east edge and 49 inches at the west edge of the mountainous part of the basin to about 41 inches at the southwestern part at Middletown. The rainfall generally is adequate during the growing season to mature the crops. The mean annual temperature at Lebanon is about 52°F, and the growing season is about 180 days.

In this report the basin has been divided into eight hydrologic zones, leased on runoff, natural use of water, and chemical character of water. Four zones lie in the valley and ridge area, three lie in the Lebanon Plateau area, and one lies in the highland along the southeastern basin boundary. In each of the zones the hydrologic characteristics are virtually the same, but they may be completely different from those in adjacent zones. The boundaries of the zones generally coincide with boundaries between geologic formations, and the areas in each zone include rocks of similar influence on water.

Streams in zone 4 at the northeast edge of the plateau have the highest average surface runoff from 1.2 to 1.1 mgd per sq mi whereas those in zone 2 at the northwest edge of the valley and ridge area have the lowest, about 1.0 mgd. Streams in zone 8, along the southeast edge of the basin, have the largest sustained low-flow yield, about 0.26 to 0.19 mgd per sq mi; those in zone 5 overlying the Martinsburg Shale east of Harrisburg have the smallest sustained low-flow yields, 0.03 to 0.01 mgd. Streams in the limestone area of zone 7 have the greatest range in low-flow yields in any one zone from 0.60 to 0 mgd per sq mi. Low-flow yields in zones 1 through 4 range from 0.13 to 0.03 mgd per sq mi.

Surface flows from zones 1 and 2 are generally acidic and contain high concentrations of sulfate, iron, and total dissolved solids especially where contaminated with mine wastes. Surface flows from zones 3 and 4 are dilute, slightly alkaline, and suitable for public water supplies. Surface flows from zones 5, 6, and 7 are alkaline and contain moderate concentrations of dissolved solids with waters of highest hardness occurring in zone 7. Surface flows from zone 8 are dilute to moderately mineralized and are relatively high in silica concentration. Nitrate concentrations are high in surf Fee flows below sewage outfalls and in ground water contaminated by septic tank effluent and industrial wastes.

Average annual sediment yields of 550 to 650 tons per square mile are characteristic of zones 1 and 2 where strip mining has destroyed the forest cover and coal culm is carried into the streams. From agricultural lands on the Martinsburg Shale in zones 5 and 6, annual sediment yields range from 300 to 350 tons per square mile; but from agricultural lands on the siliceous rocks in zone 8 and zones 3 and 4 in the valley and ridge area, the sediment yield ranges from 200 to 250 tons annually per square mile. Lowest annual sediment yields in the basin are in the forested areas of siliceous rocks in zones 2, 3, 4, and 5, and in the sinkhole topography of the limestones in zone 7 where the yield ranges from 30 to 35 tons and 50 to 60 tons per square mile, respectively.

The amount of ground water that can be developed in the basin is dependent on the ability of the underlying rocks to yield water to wells. More than 300 gpm (gallons per minute) can be obtained from wells in alluvial materials in the valley bottoms and in some of the limestones where large solution channels and fractures are penetrated by the wells. From 50 to 300 gpm can be obtained from wells in loosely cemented sandstones and in fractured limestones. From 10 to 50 gpm can be developed from wells in the shales and harder sandstones. The most dense rocks will yield from 1 to 10 gpm from fractures and crevices. Most wells yield water from the upper 350 feet of the formation, for this part contains the most fractures or solution channels.

Studies show that the velocity at which a contaminant will move downstream in the basin is related to the discharge of the stream at the time. At a stream discharge of about 400 mgd at Pine Grove, a contaminant in Swatara Creek would require about 40 hours to move from Pine Grove to Middletown. As a result of dispersion and dilution, the maximum concentration of the contaminant at Middletown would be less than 20 percent the concentration at Pine Grove under these conditions.

An evaluation of the availability of water in the basin indicates that about I,239 mgd enters as precipitation, 630 mgd leaves as streamflow, 580 mgd is evaporated and transpired, and 56 mgd is diverted for use by man. Not all the diversions for man's use are lost to the basin, as about 27 mgd is returned as sewage for reuse. About one-fourth of the waste water is returned to the ground and the remainder to stream drainageways. Of that diverted by man, 11.6 mgd is used for public supply and 44.4 mgd for industrial and private supplies. Diversions of streamflow furnish 86 percent of the public supply and 27 percent of the industrial supply, and ground-water sources yield the remainder.

Municipal and private sewage treatment plants are upgrading the waste water in many places, but no provisions are being made for treatment other than natural dilution and assimilation for the 15 mgd of coal-nine drainage in the northern part of the basin. Technology for economic treatment of mine water is not available at this time, although research in this field is being done.

Urbanization eastward from Harrisburg and around Lebanon has increased the population density of the basin. Densities of 500 people per square mile and water use exceeding 2.0 mgd per sq mi can be expected in the future. By the year 2000 the population of the basin may increase 60 percent; and if the per capita rate of use increases 0.5 percent per year the domestic requirements for water will be about two times the present use, or 23 mgd. Similarly, if the present 1:4 ratio of domestic use to industrial use of water continues, at least 89 mgd will be needed for industry in the future. Although an increase to twice the present use of water can be foreseen, or 112 mgd, water for the dilution and assimilation of wastes from treatment systems are not included.

Providing water for dilution of wastes from treatment plants has not been a problem, but in the future the amounts needed for this purpose will be greater as the population increases. As water becomes more valuable, treatment of sewage wastes to reduce the biochemical-oxygen-demand load by at least 80 to 90 percent will be necessary to conserve water for more productive uses. As much as 100 mgd may be needed for waste dilution in the basin by year 2000.

The present trends in suburban and light industrial development will probably persist in the basin. Problems arising through changes in economic value of water, conflicts in use, and alternatives in development are typical of those confronting the manager of a water-resource system.

Study Area

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USGS Numbered Series
Swatara Creek basin of southeastern Pennsylvania--An evaluation of its hydrologic system
Series title:
Water Supply Paper
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U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Pennsylvania Water Science Center
Report: vii, 79 p.; 3 Plates: 37.50 x 44.76 inches or smaller
United States
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