Watershed Protection

Pennsylvania leads the U.S. in supporting farmers to be better water stewards

Posted: Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Source: Grid magazine

While many people believe access to clean water should be a basic human right, the necessary level of government involvement to regulate water is a more contentious issue. In Pennsylvania, voluntary programs that work with our region’s farmers are one way advocates are protecting our water supply.

Since 1972, the federal Clean Water Act has helped to reduce point-source water pollution, such as specific and discrete waste from factories and pipelines. However, the regulation fails to address “nonpoint” sources of water contamination: the stormwater runoff that trails over many buildings, roads and—importantly—farms. It can include a toxic mix of motor oil, garbage liquids, animal waste and pesticides that all eventually flow into nearby bodies of water. That water makes its way into the entire Delaware River watershed, the source of clean drinking water for more than 15 million people in the region.

Andrew Johnson is the director for the William Penn Foundation Watershed Protection Program, which is itself part of the larger Delaware River Watershed Initiative, a coalition of more than 50 organizations dedicated to improving water quality in the area. 

“We support organizations that have lots of experience working with farmers,” said Johnson. “We focus on specific geographies where agricultural runoff is known to be a specific source of impairment of water quality.”

With the assistance of nonprofits supported by the William Penn Foundation, farmers can change the way they manage their fields or their livestock to the direct benefit of water quality. One strategy is mass planting of trees along the edges of streams that pass through farm fields—otherwise known as a riparian buffer, these small, man-made forests help filter runoff. Over time, they also begin to shade the stream, lowering the water temperature to the benefit of aquatic life. 

Other farm practices that benefit water quality include building new stream crossings for livestock so that they don’t create sediment runoff, stream-bank fencing and nutrient management plans. 

“Putting manure out in the field at the right time and place can help control the amount of nutrients that are applied onto the land,” said Johnson. “Nutrient management plans help defend the stream from the impact of those applied substances.” 

Because of the lack of federal regulation, all the work done by the Delaware River Watershed Initiative has to be done through voluntary compliance with the farmer or landowner. 

“[Nongovernmental organizations] play a really important role in working directly with farmers and enabling them to access public and private money so they can address issues of water quality on their land,” said Johnson. 

One such organization, the Brandywine Conservancy, holds agricultural and conservation easements (the right to work with land you do not own) on farms and natural areas around Pennsylvania and Northern Delaware.

John P. Goodall, head of the farmland protection program for the conservancy, helps farmers navigate the various bureaucracies that provide help with funding to mitigate farm impact on water quality. According to Goodall, these practices not only improve the quality of the water but the productivity of the farm as well.

“These efforts can improve herd health, if they have livestock,” he said. “Getting animals out of contaminated water means fewer vet bills. It can also improve the amount of production, such as weight gain and milk production in cattle.” 

Hugh Lofting is one of the landowners Goodall works with. Lofting makes his living through his construction business but also owns a family farm in West Marlborough, Pennsylvania. The farm has been active for hundreds of years and has a stream that feeds into the White Clay Creek. 

The Brandywine Conservancy—along with the William Penn Foundation and the Delaware River Watershed Initiative—has assisted Lofting with upgrading the conservation plan (which he has had since 1976, one of the first in Chester County) and implementing different practices to help temper the farm’s impact on the stream. 

Lofting began building his riparian buffer in the 1980s by planting 1,800 trees along the stream, a joint effort between the conservancy and his family. 

“Ever since then, I’ve been really interested in sustainability and farming cover crops,” said Lofting, referring to crops such as rye and barley that are grown specifically to protect and enrich the quality of the soil.

“Recently, we did a lot of work through the Brandywine Conservancy regarding water that ran off the barn,” said Lofting. “The barn is pretty close to the stream, so we put a lot of dry wells [a pit with stones and fabric that filters groundwater before it enters the stream] in for the water to run off on. We put another road in, and put some soils in the field to control the water going into the stream. I’d like to stress the importance of people being conscious of what goes in their streams.” 

This consciousness, despite a lack of legal obligation, can go a long way toward cleaner water. 

The efforts of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative are focused on scientifically predetermined areas that would benefit the most from this kind of intervention.  

“This is a really exciting thing we’re doing,” said Johnson. “And we’re doing this on a scale that I don’t think is happening anywhere else in the country.”

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