Joseph Sweeney

Joseph Sweeney

The successful conclusion of Lancaster Water Week, observed June 3-10, and the publication of the informative article on the Conestoga River (“A journey to find the source of Lancaster County's Conestoga River,” June 13 LNP, insider) make this a perfect time to reflect on the historic sources of our county’s water-quality challenges while celebrating the new approaches being developed to address these issues.

The recent Brubaker Run restoration effort (“Lime Spring Square’s flood plain restoration to save land, help bay and spare taxpayers,” May 1 LNP, insider) captures perfectly an innovative approach that land owners should consider as Lancaster County embraces the twin goals of providing appropriate economic growth and sustainable environmental benefits for its citizens.

This restoration has adapted the techniques pioneered at the Big Spring Run research site in West Lampeter Township on a working farm for use in a commercial setting. The public-private partnership detailed in the article shows that development and improved water quality can be mutually achieved with appropriate land-use and remediation strategies.

While developers are starting to recognize the economic advantages of flood plain restoration, the practice has even greater applications for other private land owners. In Lancaster County, this group is primarily farmers faced with an array of regulations driven by local water-quality goals, stormwater permitting and Chesapeake Bay cleanup requirements.

While many of these regulatory initiatives focus on “edge of field” nutrients and sediment, recent data and analysis developed by the Water Science Institute — funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Steinman Foundation – indicate “in stream” sources may present greater environmental challenges.

These sources have been inherited from the previous land-use practices of early Lancastrians. Here and throughout the eastern United States, these practices included the damming or impoundment of nearly all small streams, primarily to generate power for a wide range of agricultural, timbering, manufacturing and related uses.

In Lancaster County alone, the 1840 census registered more than 400 such mill dams. In Lancaster, York and Chester counties, more than 1,000 mill dams were recorded in 19th-century atlases. The Lancaster County dams can be intact or breached, but whether breached or removed, the erosion accelerates and continues for decades.

Currently, a network of highways, bridges and related infrastructure creates additional impoundment. As seen at Brubaker Run, the silt, sediment and nutrients captured behind those barriers have been left for this generation to remedy in order to achieve sustainably clear, clean water for our county.

Research in this area by Franklin & Marshall College professors and WSI science advisers Drs. Dorothy Merritts and Robert Walter has been widely reported and reviewed. Most recently, it was the focus of a two-day workshop by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. WSI, Department of Environmental Protection policymakers and local restoration professionals were among those who participated to determine how this historic problem will inform and impact future clean water strategies.

WSI mapping data presented at the conference show that erosion is occurring in local watersheds at a much greater rate than previously thought, injecting enormous amounts of sediment and associated nitrogen and phosphorus into local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Much of the erosion is occurring on agricultural properties where high banks from current and former impoundments — not current farming practices — are likely loading our streams with quantities of pollution. These were largely unidentified until recently.

WSI’s scientific analysis of imaging data and field research has demonstrated that along the banks of the Chickies Creek watershed alone, erosion of 81,000 cubic meters of sediment occurred between 2008 and 2014. Annually, this is equivalent to 20,600 tons or 41,271,600 pounds of sediment containing approximately 27,000 pounds of nitrogen and 20,000 pounds of phosphorus.

Each mile of stream in just this watershed contributes an average of 105 tons of sediment per year to the county total, impairing the quality of local water on its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Chickies Creek is just one of 12 watersheds in Lancaster County with such challenges.

With this data and the ongoing research at Big Spring Run, WSI is identifying erosion hot spots to develop a triage assessment model that will better inform water-quality improvement practices.

Developing a set of policy proposals and restoration strategies — such as flood plain restoration, public-private partnerships, municipal offset alternatives and enhanced riparian buffer programs — that reflects this new information will benefit taxpayers. It is a more effective use of public money, and it more fairly allocates responsibility for agriculture’s role, as we collaboratively approach a sustainable pro-growth future.

Joseph Sweeney is executive director of the Water Science Institute.

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