It's almost springtime and you know what that means! Salamander migration time! Those cool little (and big) guys hold a special place in my heart. These sensitive creatures are what are known as an indicator species which means that their health can tell you a lot about the health of their habitat. This brings me to our largest, giant native salamander, the Eastern hellbender. Also known as Allegheny alligators, snot otters, and lasagna lizards, these big guys are so ugly they're cute. Just like most salamanders, they prefer to live a quiet life underneath rocks, for approximately 35 years and are seldom seen. They can reach up to 2 feet in length so you think you'd run into them more while hiking in a stream, but they have a great mottled gray or brown camouflage that blends in very well with rocks and stream beds. Just because they are big doesn't mean they aren't sensitive and hellbenders have been in trouble since the 1980's due to habitat loss and degradation. A recent study by Greg Lipps of Ohio State University, found an 82% drop in the Ohio hellbender populations and the suspected cause is increased sedimentation in the streams and rivers.
Natural gas pipelines with poor stormwater practices along and in our streams and rivers are a major contributor to the increased sedimentation. Stormwater regulations call for proper perimeter controls, stream crossing techniques, and stabilization techniques in order to minimize the amount of sediment-laden runoff. However, it appears that these techniques are not often properly followed when it comes to pipeline projects, particularly in the steep hills around the Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia border. Ohio and Pennsylvania each have over 20,000 miles of lines, more than any other state in the country. These pipelines also include the large northern projects such as the Rover Pipeline which has contaminated and re-contaminated large wetland areas in Stark County, and the Mariner East Pipeline. When these pipelines are installed large areas of trees are cleared and large areas of earth are exposed. Once the project has been completed these areas are to be re-stabilized (re-planted) immediately. However, it seems that these areas are not being re-planted and when it rains these strips of bare land provide and easy route for water to quickly make it down the hills and into the streams and rivers, picking up large sediment loads along the way creating erosion of the hills and streambanks and creating waterways that look like rivers of "chocolate milk." In addition, some pipelines dig right through stream and river beds that they cross rather than horizontally drilling under them.
This creates many problems for the overall health of our rivers and streams, including the degradation of habitat for several aquatic species. The ancient and sensitive hellbender salamander, like other aquatic species get oxygen from the water that they intake through their gills. Have you ever tried to breath in air filled with dust and dirt? I know I have on construction sites and while off-roading and I can tell you my lungs aren't a fan, but unlike us they don't have access to bandanas, masks, and respirators. Imagine having to breathe in water that is so full of fine dirt you can't even see through it. The biggest problem this is causing for the hellbender is that the babies and young live in small spaces in the gravel of the stream bed and as the sediment in the water settles, these spaces are filled in leaving nowhere for them to go. As a result fewer and fewer young have been observed leaving mostly the adult salamanders and as the adults fade away, so does their populations which are in a sharp decline.
The Ohio EPA will be purposing new sediment regulations for pipelines in the coming months and researchers at West Virginia University are also looking at ways to reduce the environmental impacts of pipelines. Hopefully with these acts and continued conservation efforts the Eastern hellbender salamander will make a comeback and live on for another million years. Another fine example of how everything we do affects something else, everything is connected.
Blog author: Kelly Parker, Stormwater Specialist