The Chesapeake region is fortunate to have a variety of organizations that are interested in creating innovative partnerships to address local needs for clean water.

In 2016, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay was awarded two grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to reduce nitrate pollution in the Octoraro watershed in Lancaster and Chester counties, PA, an important source of drinking water for thousands of customers in Pennsylvania.

The first was a technical capacity grant to work with the Octoraro Watershed Association to prioritize the needs of more than 100 farmers who have needed conservation plans — state-required maps for soil and water conservation since 1972. The Alliance will use the funding to calculate the nutrient load reduction potential of each farm, should all of the best management practices in the plans be implemented.

With additional information from the association’s previous work, each farm will be ranked by criteria including load reduction, proximity to a stream contributing to the water supply and the willingness of the farmer to take action. When complete, this project will yield a database of farmers, prioritized and ready for BMP implementation.

The other NFWF grant project, Restoring the Octoraro: Plain Sect Conservation Action Project, is a multi-year partnership with the Octoraro association, Chester Water Authority and others that will create a Source Water Collaborative of the partners and stakeholders in the Octoraro watershed.

Octoraro Creek near its confluence with the Susquehnna River. (Dave Harp)

In addition to immediate support, the project is working to create a long-term funding and implementation plan for conservation action. Targeting farms with the greatest nitrate reduction potential, the grant will fund a portion of the BMP implementation in subwatersheds that contribute to the Octoraro Reservoir, a drinking water source for 250,000 Pennsylvanians. Ten farmers have already been selected for BMP implementation in 2017. The Source Water Collaborative will work to build and sustain long-term strategies for BMP monitoring and financing in the Octoraro watershed.

Nearly 70 percent of the farmers in the Octoraro Creek Watershed are Plain Sect farmers who use traditional farming practices, including conventional tillage and high manure application practices that contribute to erosion, as well as stream and groundwater contamination.

By protecting the quality of the drinking water supply, agricultural plans implemented in Octoraro watershed will also substantially reduce sediment and nutrients entering the Chesapeake Bay downstream.

Because of high agricultural land use, Lancaster and Chester counties are among the greatest nitrogen polluters in the Chesapeake watershed, delivering more than 8 kilograms per hectare per year to the Bay. The Octoraro watershed is considered impaired for nutrients and sediment from agriculture, making it a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Priority Area.

Water-quality monitoring efforts began in 2008 to develop a Total Maximum Daily Load to address these pollutants. Of the 16 impaired waterways listed in the TMDL, segments of four water bodies — East Branch and West Branch Octoraro creeks, Meetinghouse Creek, Octoraro Creek — are impaired for nutrients and have a “potable water supply” use designation under the TMDL. These and several other tributaries contribute to Octoraro Reservoir.

Ongoing monitoring efforts have revealed that groundwater nitrate concentrations frequently exceed the 10 milligrams

Octoraro Water Company Dam & Pump House, shown here, was built in 1904 and abandoned 50 years later. (Dave Harp)

per liter limit for drinking water, and that groundwater sources have a traceable negative impact on surface water in the Octoraro watershed. As a result of high nitrate concentrations in the reservoir, the Chester Water Authority dilutes this water source with water from its Susquehanna River intake before treatment. Reducing nitrate pollution in the Octoraro’s groundwater and streams through strategic agricultural BMP installation will help protect local source water and reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to the Bay.

Although the Alliance received grants in 2016 to launch this project, the work is built on a foundation that took decades to construct.

Since its creation in 1967, the Octoraro Watershed Association has received countless grants and built relationships with hundreds of Plain Sect farmers. Some of the most important data collected by the association is a geospatial analysis of 1,000 farms.

This technical analysis identified the 150 farms with the highest pollution potential in the Octoraro watershed based on the severity of eroded, denuded high-animal use areas and their proximity to a stream. These farms will be the first on the list for BMP implementation projects. The remaining farms will be prioritized based on their source water protection potential.

Working with Plain Sect farmers requires a commitment to long-term dialogue. Many Amish question government agencies or others who may come seeking their help to improve local water quality to aid the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, a body of water most Plain Sect farmers have never seen.

The association is trusted by one of the most conservative Plain Sect communities in Lancaster County. Through casual visits with Amish liaisons, the group has had success in helping many improve their farming practices — and in some cases, even accept government funds to pay for solutions to reduce water pollution.

One Amish farmer working with the association accepted a significant grant from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, also known as PENNVEST, to address a barnyard once called a mud pit by consultants.

Until recently, most Plain Sect farms did not have the required conservation plans. The association was able to facilitate new plans for more than 100 Amish farms and has compiled a list of those who are willing to implement their plans when they can afford the expensive fixes to their barnyards.

Amish farmers are often unwilling to accept federal or other government money directly. The Octoraro association has demonstrated that the cost-share funding offered through this project appeals to Plain Sect farmers because it does not come directly from a federal source, but instead through a partnership of nonprofit efforts.

While the Octoraro Watershed Association and local conservation groups have educated Plain Sect farmers and installed BMPs on farms, more work is needed, and funds are limited.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Octoraro Watershed Association will work together with their many partners to prioritize farms and implement BMPs; develop messaging; conduct one-on-one meetings with farmers; and ultimately, build innovative and sustainable strategies for continued conservation action in that watershed. We estimate the project outcomes will include 100 farmers reached, approximately 2,500 acres worth of BMPs installed and 18,734 total pounds of nitrogen reduced.