This is the fourth 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 third, second, and first parts.
Both the trust developed by the outreach process and the technical assistance offered by the state and federal partners played key roles in participation by the Old Order Mennonites in the Muddy Creek and Dry River watersheds. Even though the pollution limits applied just as much to them as to their less conservative neighbors, many chose to invest their own money instead of government cost-share funds to upgrade their conservation practices and develop nutrient management plans for both crop fields and livestock operations. They have, however, accepted the technical assistance offered by NRCS, the Shenandoah Valley SWCD, and CBF. It is testimony to the Mennonites’ faith, their stewardship ethic, and the encouragement of their bishops that these farmers paid the full cost to install the recommended conservation practices, which included about 80 percent of the streambank livestock exclusion fencing installed to date.
It is worth noting, however, that the other farmers along Muddy Creek who have accepted cost-share funding have also willingly contributed their shares of their projects’ costs. One particularly important portion of the cost-share funds made available to them has come through NRCS from special Chesapeake Bay program sections of the 2008 Farm Bill.
Muddy Creek’s condition improved significantly from 2001-2006, thanks to the whole-farm combinations of Best Management Practices installed then. They included dairy loafing lot systems, 10 miles of stream fencing to exclude livestock, grazing systems to protect and enhance pastures, 1,200 acres of cover crops for small grains, and side-dress application of nitrogen on corn. In addition, the project addressed rural human wastewater issues with 13 septic system repairs and replacements, 30 septic tank pump-outs, and the installation of five alternative waste treatment systems. Improvement has continued since 2006, as farmers along the creek have worked steadily to extend, enhance, and maintain these conservation practices, both with and without cost-share funding.
Their efforts have produced one major success: Muddy Creek and lower Dry River are no longer impaired for excessive nitrate. Levels of that pollutant have consistently stayed around 6 mg/l in Muddy Creek and 4 mg/l in Dry River, with no sample in excess of the drinking water standard (10 mg/l) since 2004, despite some years of heavy runoff that would previously have produced continuous violations.
Muddy Creek is still impaired for E. coli bacteria and benthic invertebrates. Though the results of in-the-field water quality testing indicate clear improvements, they also suggest caution, as E. coli violation rates continue to run over 50-60 percent in the creek's watershed, still a long way from the maximum 10.5 percent violation rate necessary to de-list the water and call it fully supporting for recreational use. The job has taken a decade so far. The great cooperation over that time between many partners—both public and private—deserves high praise, but it is important to understand and be realistic about the effort and the resources necessary to turn around waterway ecosystems that have been (largely unintentionally) treated very roughly for over a century.
—John Page Williams
Stay tuned for the fifth and final part of the "Cows and Clean Water Series" next week!