Hundreds of miles of streams that pass through local farmland are set to be restored thanks to new federal funding announced this week.
More specifically, a total of $7.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will support work by Lancaster Clean Water Partners to improve 350 miles of impaired streams bordering agricultural lands by 2030, according to Allyson Gibson, a coordinator at the group.
“Our efforts will improve public health, economic development, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation and water quality for not only Lancastrians, but also our neighbors downstream,” she said. Her organization is a coalition of government, business and community groups.
More than half of Lancaster County’s 1,400 miles of streams is considered impaired, and the thousands of farms that dot the local landscape play a role in creating the problem. Stormwater washing across agricultural land can often collect pollutants — sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus — and move them into farmside streams, which then carry them further downstream, including to the Chesapeake Bay.
County officials are required by federal mandate to reduce annual water pollution loads by millions of pounds over the next few years. Gibson is hopeful that the Partners’ Regional Conservation Partnership Program will help by targeting “small stream segments” in more than a dozen miniature watersheds called catchments.
While she did not identify specific sites, Gibson said those catchments are all located within the greater Chiques, Conestoga, Pequea, and Octoraro watersheds.
Beginning last summer, stakeholders looked within those watersheds to develop plans and prioritize streams for restoration — giving preference to areas where some conservation work has already taken place or within favorable, forested landscapes, she said
All told, the footprint included agricultural land belonging to 400 individual landowners, Gibson said.
Project leaders had to visit each of those properties, said John Williamson, with the agricultural engineering firm TeamAg Inc., a program partner.
“For the most part people are really open to making these types of improvements,” he said.
And once they agreed, officials got to work making individual plans for participating properties. The plans could call for upgrading on-farm infrastructure to improve barnyards or to better store and capture manure, Williamson said. Or it could mean implementing farming techniques designed to minimize soil erosion.
“It’s a very comprehensive plan,” Williamson said, explaining that farmers who adopt more conservation methods are bumped higher on the priority list for the program and its funding.
“To make that change is going to be very, very expensive, and they just can’t do it,” he said, referring to farmers who otherwise couldn’t afford to do the work on their own.
Gibson similarly highlighted the cost concerns, explaining the intent of the program is to keep landowner costs “as close to zero as possible.”
And in addition to improvements related to farming operations, program organizers prioritized work along streams, namely the planting of trees and shrubs at waterway borders.
That’s according to Lamonte Garber, a Watershed Restoration Coordinator at Stroud Water Research, another partner organization, which is focused on freshwater ecology.
According to Garber, the installation of that streamside vegetation — called a riparian buffer — provides multiple benefits crucial to having local streams removed from a statewide list of impaired waterways.
In addition to helping capture runoff, he said the buffers can provide shade to cool streams, and falling leaves and debris can provide food and habitat for water-dwelling insects — mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies.
Those insects are pollution-sensitive, and their presence in local streams goes a long way toward having them delisted as impaired, Garber said, also noting that the bugs serve as food for fish and amphibians.
“Once we explain that the trees really finish the job for the stream, they get it,” he said of landowners.
This comprehensive approach to stream restoration is essential to achieving the goal of rapid improvement over the next few years, said Peter Hughes, president of Red Barn Consulting, another program partner.
“It’s going to take all of it,” Hughes said, optimistic that goals can be met thanks, in part, due to the $7.4 million from the Department of Agriculture.
“It’s a lot of money to get that ball rolling,” he said.
Gibson, with the Lancaster Clean Water Partners agreed, though she’s still looking toward the future and the ultimate goal of cleaning all Lancaster County waters by 2040.
“The need is still there for additional and continuous funding to support people that do the outreach, maintain the projects, and continuously engage the entire community with appropriate communications,” she said. “The work that needs to be done in Lancaster ... cannot be done individually.”