Out to Pasture: Philly Tours Farms Protecting Our Source Water

 Philadelphia Water toured Berks Co. farms on Friday, November 7 with Berks Nature. Credit: Brian Rademaekers/Philadelphia Water

KEMPTON, PA Pointing to a towering, soggy heap of what he calls "slop," Larry Lloyd traces with his finger a stream of water running from the base of a manure pile to a small drainage pipe that connects to an adjacent creek.

Nearby, rows of cows and calves calmly and mechanically chew hay. Without much noticing it, they are simultaneously creating what seems to be an endless supply of fresh manure for farmers to stack into yet more heaps. It’s hay in one end, water-polluting manure out the other.

And it never stops.

"This is what we’re up against," says Lloyd, a lanky, weather-tanned man in his 60s who sports a baseball cap and a pair of boots well-suited for his manure-rich job— getting local farmers to adopt smart runoff management practices.

 

 

Lloyd, an ecologist, works for Berks Nature, a nonprofit (known for most of its 41 years as the Berks County Conservancy) that preserves green space, protects waterways and provides environmental education in Berks County. On this day, Lloyd is giving a tour of watershed-minded farms to planners, engineers and water quality scientists from Philadelphia Water and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

What, you might ask, is a big city water utility doing out in the country with a bunch of cows?

 

 

It’s not something most people think about when they turn on their tap and access safe drinking water, but Philadelphia Water works with a wide array of partners to protect the source of our drinking water way before it ever gets to the treatment plant intakes on the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.

Much of that work is organized under our Source Water Protection Program, including the work done with local farms to protect watersheds from agricultural runoff.

One tool they use to connect with farms and other stakeholders in the Schuylkill Watershed is the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund (SRRF), a grant program organized by the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. Philadelphia Water has been participating in the grant program for six years, allowing us to contribute to watershed protection projects that are both close to home and farther upstream.

 

For example, some of the funding we've contributed to the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund (SRRF) in 2015 will go toward new stormwater management tools at Dobson Elementary School in Manayunk, which include a managed native meadow at the entrance of the school and a woodland walkway around the perimeter.

But our 2015 contribution is also helping to fund stormwater runoff projects at three farms in Berks County. In all, Philadelphia Water joined four other funders to contribute a total of $319,792 to the SRRF this year.
Other watershed partners that contribute to the SRRF include Exelon, Coca-Cola, Aqua Pennsylvania, and MOM’s Organic Market.

In September, the Schuylkill River Heritage Area announced plans to distribute $278,623 of that to 10 projects across southeastern Pennsylvania aimed at improving water quality in the Schuylkill River and tributaries.(Click here to see a full list of 2015 projects.)

 

 

At the Donald Rice farm in Berks County, two dry manure storage facilities will be installed along with a waste transfer system, barnyard controls, rain gutters and a lined outlet. These improvements will significantly reduce the amount of nutrients and pollutants entering the nearby Maiden Creek and Schuylkill River watershed.

At the Biehl and Kurtz farms, also located in the Maiden Creek Watershed, two in-ground manure storage structures (seen above) will be installed at the Kurtz farm, and a storage pit will be installed at the Biehl family farm. The Biehl farm project will also include a waste transfer system, rain gutters and more.

So, why should someone in Philadelphia care what these farmers do with their land? These projects are extremely important because stormwater is the number one source of pollution in the Schuylkill River.

With programs like Green City, Clean Waters that are designed to manage stormwater that comes from impermeable surfaces like parking lots, roofs and streets, we often think of stormwater pollution as an urban issue.

But stormwater in the rural areas upstream from Philadelphia comes with its own set of issues and pollutants, including excessive nutrients in the water and harmful organisms found in fields and animal waste.

When uncontrolled stormwater washes that stuff into our streams and rivers, it can cause a variety of environmental and health issues and makes it harder and more expensive to treat drinking water.

 

 

While taking a proactive approach to protecting source water is part of a broad strategy at Philadelphia Water, working with upstream farms also falls under a regulatory obligation, defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection, to reduce the impacts of a pathogen known as Cryptosporidium in source water.

Unlike most water-borne pathogens, Cryptosporidium, which can cause stomach illnesses, is hard to kill with chlorine and can add significant costs to drinking water treatment. Untreated agricultural waste is one of the leading sources of cryptosporidium, so investing in structures that keep runoff and animal waste on farms (and out of streams and rivers!) can make water safer and reduce treatment costs.

If you're a real water quality geek, you can nerd-out and read the full 2014 report on our Watershed Control Plan for fighting "Crypto" by clicking here.

 

 

Contributing to the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund is a smart investment for downstream water consumers like us, but it’s an equally smart investment for the farmers, who also help cover the costs of runoff control projects.

"We try to make the cost to the farmer as close to zero as possible, but they all do something on their end to make these projects work,"  says Berks Nature’s Lloyd. "The interaction also gives us a chance to educate them and get them into a nutrient control plan. We have to teach them to give up bad practices, like stacking manure in open-air heaps, which they’ve been doing for 60 years because that’s the way it’s always been done."

The "best management practices" promoted by Berks Nature and the Schuylkill Action Network, Lloyd says, can lead to a better bottom line for everyone involved.

"It’s the farmers’ money that’s getting washed into the streams because they have to go and pay for fertilizer once they lose those nutrients," notes Lloyd. "And then we all have to pay to remove all that stuff from the water, so it’s a loss for everyone."

 

 

Berks Co. dairy farmer Dalton Biehl (above), of the Biehl family's Corner View farm in Kutztown, also sees the more direct benefit of protecting the local watersheds—his farm, and everyone else, needs good clean water to survive.

"You can live without milk, and you can live without bread, but water is the most important resource we have. Even our cows need good clean water," Biehl observed during Philadelphia Water’s tour of his already extensive runoff control systems.

And that, folks, is a fact you'll hear us singing until the cows come home.