Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Bay Journal: Landowners, Turkey Hill Dairy, Trout Unlimited, Lancaster Clean Water Partners, Conservation Districts, NFWF, Chesapeake Conservancy, Others Partner On Precision Conservation In PA

Since 2016, the
Chesapeake Conservancy has pioneered the use of highly detailed images of landscapes taken from low-flying airplanes to pinpoint where conservation measures can best be deployed to clean up streams.

Those high-resolution images — down to a scale of 1 square meter — can pinpoint the locations of pollution hotspots, such as stormwater runoff from farms and developed land, and sites with bare, erosion-prone streambanks. 

Lidar (light-detection and ranging) technology uses a pulsed laser to measure distances and show elevation changes and steep slopes.

The Conservancy is convinced that the new technology can transform the conservation movement. The promise, according to its motto, is “doing projects at the right place, the right scale, the right size, and the right time.”

Now, the group is expanding a suite of precision conservation projects in Pennsylvania with hopes of a Baywide profusion of similar data-driven cleanups.

If successful, the “rapid stream delisting” project will restore at least 17 streams in the Susquehanna River basin so that they can be removed from the state’s list of impaired waterbodies in 10–12 years.

A dozen years might not seem particularly fast, but John Cox, chair of the board of Turkey Hill Dairy and a partner in one of the projects, said, “It took hundreds of years to get these streams in this condition, so 12 years is rapid recovery.”

On-the-ground work won’t take a decade, but it will take years for the full range of benefits to kick in and improve the water quality and aquatic ecosystem to the extent that would allow the state to delist an impaired stream.

The work is taking place in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Susquehanna River drainage basin because it is the source of most of the Bay’s nutrient pollution problems.

Most of the projects will take place on farms.

Work is nearly complete in the counties of Huntingdon, Centre, Clinton and Lycoming, where the conservancy formed the Precision Conservation Partnership with dozens of partners including conservation districts and Trout Unlimited. Eight streams are the target there. 

Continued funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is supporting an expansion into Union and Snyder counties, where more partners and streams will be added to the effort.

Nine streams stand to benefit in heavily farmed Lancaster County.

In an effort led by the Lancaster Clean Water Partners, more than 30 local organizations came together there to pore over high-resolution maps — kind of like MRI images — showing where on-the-ground conservation measures could be concentrated for the greatest impact. 

Financial support for the analysis was provided by the Campbell Foundation.

Scientists from research institutions and the state Department of Environmental Protection weighed in, offering guidance on the level of restoration needed to meet the water quality and habitat standards for delisting.

“People in Lancaster County have been hearing about cleaning up our streams for a long time, but have no sense it’s happening,” Cox said. “Part of what we’re excited about here is getting people to see that clean streams are an actual possibility.”

The next step will be to select site-specific best management practices and seek funding for them.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has backed the cutting-edge technology, paying the conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center in 2013 to update the Chesapeake Bay Program’s data maps to show more information and provide greater accuracy.

That’s significant because the computer models previously used maps with resolution that covered a quarter-acre of surface area, while the new maps have a resolution of 1 square meter. 

That meant, in the past, sources of pollution and rates of sediment and nutrient runoff had to be generalized with a greater possibility of inaccurate land use designations and pollution sources. 

Now, that information can be gleaned down to the parcel level, showing details such as individual trees, single houses and small waterways.

The Conservancy also has received $6 million from the EPA to gather high-resolution images of every inch of the 100,000 square miles of land in and surrounding the Bay watershed. That work has been completed.

More recently, the EPA added a $1.1 million grant so the conservancy can help local governments and nonprofits use the detailed images to plan stream restorations. 

The location of headwater streams and other water features can be shown at a parcel level. Planners can also see changes in the landscape through the years to identify trouble spots and, conversely, where projects have improved stream quality.

“We subscribe to the social tipping point theory,” said Carly Dean, program manager at the conservancy. “The idea is, if a certain percentage of a community adopts this stewardship approach on their landscape, they’ll inspire their neighbors to do so as well.”

The watershed-wide collection of imagery is free to use, but the conservancy has been hired in some cases to create tools that help local governments and other organizations use the data in particular ways.

In two Southcentral PA counties, the Conservancy used elevation information to map out roadside ditches, an unmonitored but significant source of nutrients and sediment pollution.

When the District of Columbia needed help in meeting its tree canopy goal, the conservancy helped develop a web-based decision-making tool to determine where best to plant trees to provide multiple benefits, such as providing shade and improving air quality.

Anne Arundel County, MD, was set up with a data tool that found the county had lost 2,356 acres of tree canopy from 2013–17, roughly double the amount of tree canopy loss that had been measured using older methods.

The Virginia Environmental Endowment used landscape data to help award $4.6 million in grants for high-priority restoration projects in the James River watershed.

The use of precision mapping technology to drive water improvements was put to the test in Northcentral Pennsylvania in 2017–19. 

Water quality, fish and insect populations, as well as sediment and nutrient levels, were measured before and after forested buffers were added on three stream segments degraded by agricultural runoff in Centre County.

“There were strong indications that we are on the right track,” Dean said of the results.

She thinks the rapid stream delisting projects in Pennsylvania will inspire a regionwide approach.

“We want to raise all ships,” she said.  

[PA Chesapeake Bay Plan

[For more information on how Pennsylvania plans to meet its Chesapeake Bay cleanup obligations, visit DEP’s PA’s Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan webpage.

[Click Here for a summary of the steps the Plan recommends.

[How Clean Is Your Stream?

[DEP’s Interactive Report Viewer allows you to zoom in on your own stream or watershed to find out how clean your stream is or if it has impaired water quality using the latest information in the draft 2020 Water Quality Report.].

(Photo: Volunteers plant a streamside buffer along Elk Creek in Centre County, PA.)

(Reprinted from the Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

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[Posted: December 15, 2020]

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