A weekly blog for all things conservation
Kevin Brown- BCCD, Ag Resource Specialist
Last week’s article from Miranda seemed to be a nice segway into something I have been working on lately. We here at the District focus on clean water- keeping clean water clean, and attempting to take “dirty” water and make it clean before it heads downstream. The first one is easier, usually. We use all tools available to get it done- gutters, diversion ditches, drop boxes, etc.- to take clean water, and divert it around areas that could potentially pollute it. Cleaning the water can sometimes be a bit more complicated than keeping it clean in the first place, but not always. What is Mother Nature’s way for cleaning water? Filtering it, just like we would do. How does she filter it? Soil! Lots of living, breathing, water infiltrating soil. If we take water that is laden with nutrients or sediment, and run it through some really good soil, it comes out the other end- clean. It’s magic. However, that means you have to have some good soil that water can infiltrate and clean it as it goes through it.
That brings me to the point of this article. The more populated an area gets, and the higher the population density gets, the worse you make it. You concentrate more and more water, and you have less good soil areas that you can use to clean the dirty water. We concentrate water by using gutters and such, but we also do it by covering the ground with impermeable surfaces (driveways, houses, sidewalks, etc.). I have stated before, nothing good comes from concentrated water- erosion, flooding, not allowing nutrients and sediment to settle out, etc.
Let’s take that to the next step. What causes the issues we see in streams and rivers (and the Bay)? Animals, or humans, or both? I walked into the printer room one day and a piece of paper laid on top of the copier (2022 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring Report, PA DEP). It had a list of counties in Pennsylvania, followed by the number of impaired streams/county. Impaired means that the stream has some kind of an issue with it that deems it “not acceptable to the governing body” (for various reasons). That is my definition, not an official one. I headed straight back to my office where I proceeded to dissect the information. First, I printed a map of Pennsylvania. Then I highlighted the counties that had more than 46% impaired streams. 46% was just a really nice breakpoint in the information. There is no other rhyme not reason for it. Then I went to the census report (United State Census Bureau- Quick Facts) and highlighted, in a different color, where the densest populations in the state were. Can you guess what I saw? (First off, there were 2 counties with high levels of impaired streams seemingly not related to anything animal or human. I would assume these were acid mine drainage issues from back in the mining days. I will eliminate them from my numbers.)
14 of 17 counties that had high people population densities also had high impaired stream status- 82%. In counties that had a high number of cattle (NASS USDA 2021-2022 Agricultural Statistics Annual Bulletin- Pennsylvania) – only 8 of 15 counties had highly impaired streams- 53%. 82% correlation versus 53%. Not only did 47% of the counties with lots of cattle NOT have a highly impaired stream status, but 3 of those counties had extremely low impairment numbers. Instead of being over 50%, or 75% in some cases, they were at 8.7%, 10.6%, and 13%; some of the lowest numbers in the state. Does ag have “bad actors”? Sure we do. Do we have things that need to be fixed? Absolutely. All sectors do. Is ag 75% of the problem? I am not sure this bears that out. Maybe % acres farmed/county will show me something different?? I will see if I can find that.
In contrast, there are not many farm animals in the counties of Philadelphia and Delaware where 98% and 95%, respectively, of the streams are impaired. Other highly impaired streams are in Lancaster, Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks. All are over 69% impaired, and all are heavily populated with people; some with animals too, but some without.
To be continued.
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District