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Saving & Savoring The Bay

Our guide to being active in and exploring the Chesapeake Bay

Image courtesy The Schooner Woodwind

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17 million people live, work and play in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And here in the Susquehanna River region, our daily lives make an impact on the place some call a second summer home–whether you have a house there or just hop in the car for the short drive to visit, pick crabs and spend leisurely days. Maybe you explore by sailboat. Or perhaps this is the first year you visit–and likely fall in love with this majestic coastline and body of water that enchants us with its bounty. With 11,684 miles of shoreline (more than the entire West Coast of the US), there’s a lot to see, do and save. This is our guide to saving and savoring the Bay.

Water connects us all 

“Half of the fresh water that goes into the Bay comes from Pennsylvania,” says B.J. Small, PA media and communications coordinator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It starts in Cooperstown, NY, where it takes two weeks traveling down through PA to make it to the Bay. And unfortunately, 19,000 miles of rivers and streams are already designated “impaired” in the state. A hunter and fisherman, Small has long appreciated the value of clean water and the environment and hopes his work at the Foundation appeals to other “hook and bullet guys.” 

“Clean water in our rivers and streams is very important. A healthy Bay isn’t possible without healthy waters in the Keystone State,” states Harry Campbell, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania executive director. While “folks shouldn’t be discouraged from enjoying local waters, the river and the Bay, it is recommended that they not go into their local rivers and streams within 24 hours of a heavy rain because of excessive runoff of sediment and other pollutants that can carry bacteria and viruses into the water,” he warns. 

Our entire region affects the health of the Bay. “To varying degrees, urban and suburban polluted storm water runoff is a concern in Harrisburg and throughout Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, especially in older communities. In counties such as York, Lancaster, Franklin, Adams and Cumberland, agricultural runoff accounts for greater amounts of pollution,” states Campbell. 

“The Susquehanna [River] divides our region but unites our communities,” says Campbell. “The river is an economic asset for the Commonwealth. Its value goes beyond what was once a world-class smallmouth bass fishery.” Small, a fisherman himself, likens the poor health of the smallmouth bass in the river to the canary in the coal mine. “Like other polluted waters in Pennsylvania, the river deserves to be restored as soon as possible,” Campbell continues. He explains, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recommended that four miles of the Susquehanna River near the city of Harrisburg be impaired for recreational use because of bacteria levels. “Being declared impaired would allow the process of restoring the river to begin,” he claims; however, the DEP decided it needs more study.

Image courtesy The Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Saving the Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation celebrated 50 years in 2016, and the good news is that its work is working. The 2016 State of the Bay report shows improvement in pollution, habitat and fisheries. But more effort is needed.

“Sustainable investments of resources and technical assistance toward cleaning up Pennsylvania’s impaired streams—that focus efforts in the right places, with the right practices, and engage the right people and communities—would go a long way toward getting the Commonwealth back on track,” Campbell explains. 

“There are 33,000 farms in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed, so it’s little wonder that agriculture is the leading source of pollution to Commonwealth rivers and streams,” Campbell points out. “Some farmers who want clean water and more productive farms can afford to pay for their own pollution reduction practices. For others, a lack of available funding often gets in the way.” He adds, “Planting buffers is the most affordable way to reduce the amount of runoff entering our waters.”

Pennsylvania and Lancaster in particular, however, are lagging in their commitment to help clean up the Bay. Lancaster County farmland is one of the biggest contributors of manure, fertilizer and soil runoff. According to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, 55 percent of the total nitrogen load to the Bay comes from PA farms. While some counties have made efforts to keep pollution out of streams that feed into the Bay by placing 1.3 million linear feet of fencing along streams, creating 5,000 acres of forested buffers and investing in barnyard runoff control systems, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Recent state-ordered inspections of Lancaster County farms revealed that about half do not have required plans in place for controlling manure, soil and erosion. Democratic Representative Mike Sturla of Lancaster recently introduced a bill to also prevent livestock from wading in streams, but with the current administration rolling back EPA regulations, progress may prove even more difficult.   

In the city of Lancaster alone, property owners are responsible for about 750 million gallons of polluted water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay via the Conestoga River. How does that happen? When it rains, the rain picks up pollutants along the way, from pet waste on sidewalks, to lawn fertilizers and pesticides, to oil and automotive fluids from parking lots. Sewage and rainwater flow into a combined sewage system but also rely on combined sewer overflow, which discharges storm water and sewage into local rivers, harming aquatic life and making recreational areas unsafe.

 

Lancaster Leading the Way

Lancaster recognized this problem and became a leader in the country for its green infrastructure practices. 

“The city of Lancaster has a comprehensive green infrastructure plan that was released in April 2011,” explains Fritz Schroeder, director of urban greening for the Lancaster County Nature Conservancy. “This 25-year strategy looked at all paved surfaces of the City—alleys, sidewalks, streets, sloped and flat roofs—to come up with a plan to reduce overflows to the Conestoga River.” (See more at saveitlancaster.org.) Schroeder continues, “To date, well over 40 projects have been completed with an estimated reduction of over 40 million gallons of runoff.” He adds, “Many municipalities are stepping up to do comprehensive planning. Marietta Borough was recently awarded a grant to partner with East Donegal Township to address runoff issues in Evans Run. Once the planning is completed, the municipalities should have a road map to inform their investments and project implementation.”

Schroeder adds: “We all live in a watershed; understanding which watershed you live in and where your water flows is an important first step.” There are many active watershed groups in Lancaster County working to clean up our area. To reference a group near you, visit lancasterwatersheds.org.

For example, “Each municipality in Lancaster County is updating their planning and zoning regulations to ensure improved practices with each construction project. This is perhaps the most important step and one that we should all encourage.” He encourages residents of the Susquehanna River communities to “engage your local municipal officials and reinforce this positive step forward.” 

Campbell continues, “pollution in Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna River threatens our health, way of life and economy.” The good news is, he says, “the health of the Chesapeake Bay is improving,” continuing, “but it is still not where it needs to be. Pollution reduction efforts in Pennsylvania are far from finished.” The Pennsylvania DEP has already determined that Pennsylvania will not meet its 2017 milestone. But “CBF is confident that with commitment of financial resources and technical assistance in the right communities, on the right practices and with the right people, the Commonwealth can get back on track toward its 2025 milestone goal,” Campbell says.

Save The Bay

WHAT CAN YOU DO?
“Each of us can begin right where we live,” explains Schroeder. “Urban and suburban runoff is a leading source of water pollution in Pennsylvania,” says Campbell. 
“When it rains, pay attention to where the water flows. Is it leaving your property at a rapid pace? Does it take soil with it? Is it creating any gullies? All of these are examples that can typically be solved with simple landscaping solutions including rain gardens and permeable paving,” says Schroeder.  
Take the quiz at cbf.org/take-action to check your “Bay footprint,” which calculates how your food, sewage, home, land and transportation affect pollution in the Bay. 
Did you know if everyone in the Bay watershed ate only the USDA recommended amount of protein, which is 46 to 56 grams (the typical person consumes 30 percent more), we would reduce enough nitrogen to meet the pollution reduction goals of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint? 
Bottom line: Eat less meat, use native plants in landscaping, get a rain barrel, drive less and use less energy.

10 more ways the average person can contribute to cleaner waters in PA and the Bay from the CBF:

  1. Reducing polluted runoff that leaves your property can help prevent damage caused by flooding, limit stream bank erosion, and reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that is carried into our rivers and streams.
  2. Plant a tree. Trees absorb water, filter pollutants before they get into waterways and stabilize the soil to reduce erosion. The presence of trees also increases property values. 
  3. Install a rain garden. Rainwater soaks into the garden of native plants situated in an area where water collects naturally.
  4. Get a soil test. Learning how much, if any, fertilizer is needed for the lawn can prevent over-application, reduce polluted runoff and save money.
  5. Mow not so low. Mow your grass to a height of 2-3 inches. The longer the blades of grass, the more water is retained and the stronger the root system. A stronger lawn can choke out weeds, calling for fewer herbicides.
  6. Leave grass clippings on the lawn. Grass clippings are rich in nitrogen, a main ingredient in fertilizer. 
  7. Clear the drain. Keep storm drains clear of leaves and other debris that could cause clogs and flooding.
  8. Install a rain barrel. Rainwater collected from rooftops and used for watering plants, washing cars and more won’t contribute to flooding.  
  9. Cut the concrete. Converting paved surfaces to grass, rain gardens or other pervious surfaces allows storm water to be absorbed before it can become harmful runoff. 
  10. Get the big picture. Find out what your municipality is doing to manage storm water in your community.

 

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