Conestoga watershed needs major cleanup

A vegetated buffer along a stream in Lancaster County.

For years, Pennsylvania farmers and farm groups have complained that they have been doing more to keep pollution out of local streams and the Chesapeake Bay than the federal government gives them credit for.

They were right.

Results of a much-anticipated farm survey by Penn State show that farmers in 41 counties that drain into the bay have done considerable conservation work — on their own dime — that the state and federal governments have not counted.

The survey results come at a time when the state has been under fire from federal authorities for failing to meet its pollution-reduction commitments to clean up the bay.

Some 6,782 farmers voluntarily responded to the survey, which had the blessing of the state departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The results showed nearly a half-million acres had undergone nutrient and manure conservation work on farms that had not been counted by federal computer models that estimate pollution coming from states that drain into the bay.

Also reported were 1.3 million linear feet of fencing placed along streams to keep livestock out, 4,270 manure storage units or barnyard runoff-control systems, and more than 5,000 acres of stream banks that have been converted to environment-improving forested buffers.

The results of the survey were presented to the EPA.

Pennsylvania’s largest farming group, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, reacted to the results with some pointed words.

The survey results show that “farmers have not received credit for a variety of conservation practices that significantly reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff in the bay watershed,” the bureau said in a statement.

State officials’ responses were more muted.

“The survey confirmed Pennsylvania farmers are doing conservation work previously unaccounted for,” state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said at an online press conference Friday in Harrisburg.

But DEP acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell cautioned, “We still have a big hill to climb in meeting our bay obligations.”

Rich Batiuk, of the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office, was cautious as well. “Pennsylvania is heading in the right direction, but we know they have more work to do. Certainly, on the farm-ag side, more than anyone else, because of the sheer magnitude. But we have a good trajectory.”

The grass-roots Chesapeake Bay Foundation called the number of pollution-reduction measures reported and verified in the survey “impressive.”

But the group added, “While it is good news that there is so many more miles of stream bank fencing, stream buffers and other practices that can be counted toward pollution reduction, with over 6,700 miles of rivers and streams impaired by agriculture, the work is far from over in Pennsylvania.”

And on-the-farm inspections launched by DEP may not result in such feel-good results.

Starting last August, the agency began random inspections of 2,000 farms in the 41 counties in the watershed, including Lancaster, to determine if farmers have state-required plans to control manure and to prevent soil erosion.

At a meeting of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council last Thursday, Christopher Thompson of the Lancaster County Conservation District reported about half the farms visited in the county so far did not have the required plans.