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Cows and Clean Water, Part 2

This is the second in a series of blogs on how community conservation groups worked with farmers in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, and Rockingham County, Virginia, to improve the water quality of local streams and rivers through various Best Management Practices. Read the first part here.

  Clear Stream Through Buffer IIIPlanting native trees, shrubs, and grasses along streams help absorb and filter harmful pollutants running off from the fields before they enter our waters. Photo courtesy of John Page Williams/CBF Staff.

Publication of the TMDL brought availability of cost-share funding to the farmers for conservation practices from Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, which provides federal support to help state and local agencies focus on nonpoint source pollution problems. In the beginning of the project, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Farm Stewardship Program provided matching funds for restoration of forested streamside buffers.

In the middle of the decade, many farmers also qualified for cost-share assistance from the Conservation Reserve Enhancement and Environmental Quality Incentives Programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (CREP and EQIP) and from Pennsylvania’s Growing Greener Program (Department of Environmental Protection). USDA also offered assistance from its Bradford County Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff.  CBF added technical assistance from local stream buffer specialists Jennifer Johns and Steve Smith.

Jen Johns grew up on a sheep/beef/veal/hog farm in nearby Sugar Run.  She has academic training in both environmental science and social work. “It’s worth taking time to build relationships and network with the community,” said Johns. “We have good teamwork between NRCS, the District, and CBF. Most people don’t care who works for whom, as long as we get the projects done right.” 

To restore Mill Creek, the solutions were agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs), especially nutrient management planning, excluding livestock from streams, and managing manure.  Over the next ten years, Lovegreen, Johns, Smith, and the other team members visited all 13 of the farms to explain the ecological need for BMPs and, in many cases, their advantages for the health of the farms’ cows. Working with each farmer, they developed a plan specific to the operation’s needs. The local, person-to-person approach was the key to developing trust and convincing all of Mill Creek’s farmers to join the project. 

Then the work began. Virtually every project included streambank fencing and associated facilities, like alternative water sources and stabilized stream crossings; planting native trees, shrubs, and grasses along the stream courses; building manure storage facilities that allowed the farmers to avoid having to spread manure on frozen ground during Bradford’s long winters; stabilizing barnyard and heavy use areas; and setting up milkhouse waste treatment systems using constructed wetlands. In a couple of cases, the project partners helped farmers build new barns to move their cows away from the stream.

Finally, the team used the Natural Stream Channel Design approach to restore two deeply-eroded sections of Mill Creek that were contributing the bulk of the sediment going into the lake.

By 2005, monitoring studies made it clear that the restoration was working. Phosphorus and sediment levels had dropped 52 percent and 59 percent, respectively, far enough to comply with the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint (TMDL). They have stayed low since. Everyone involved breathed a sigh of relief, celebrated briefly, but then got back to work, because there was one important problem remaining: the lake’s bottom had over time caught so much phosphorus that the pollutant would periodically re-suspend with changing water temperatures.

The lake has not yet met its pollution limit requirements, but it is getting close, because Mike Lovegreen and his team have worked out a system that siphons water from the lake bottom into a constructed wetland below the dam. Look for more improvement over the next couple of years as this wetland scrubs the lake water.

—John Page Williams

Stay tuned for how forested streamside buffers and other innovative methods helped restore other watersheds.

Constructed Wetland IConstructed wetlands like these also help filter out harmful pollutants from our waters. Photo courtesy of John Page Williams/CBF Staff.


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