Canoeing the Conestoga: Agriculture and Water Quality

Happy Earth Day 2012 everyone!  On this Earth Day, I have decided to center a post around an important environmental issue of our time: clean waterways.  Understanding the connectedness of nature is vital for taking on a “deep ecology” mindset.  A great way to explain the connectedness of our natural systems is through our waterways.  Every stream leads to a river, every river to coastal waters and eventually the ocean.  Even the smallest tributaries must be kept clean to ensure healthy, thriving rivers and oceans.

Yesterday, my classmates and I traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to canoe with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  We found ourselves in Hinkletown, home of the Conestoga River.  The Conestoga is a 62 mile long tributary of the Susquehanna River.  The Susquehanna River provides the Chesapeake Bay with about 40% of it’s freshwater, making it a key component in the Bay’s health.  Since the Conestoga flows into the Susquehanna, it also plays a role in the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay.  See, everything is connected to everything else (Thanks, Rachel Carson).

Lancaster County is home to many high-order Mennonite and Amish communities.  These groups have an infamously traditional way of life, which creates an interesting challenge for keeping the Conestoga and therefore the Susquehanna and therefore the Chesapeake Bay clean.  They have been farming in Lancaster County for hundreds of years.  For years and years they have used the same traditional agricultural practices.  These practices may not pose well for the water quality of the Conestoga.  If livestock is allowed to roam free, fertilizers and pesticides are used and fields are left fallow in the winter, the water quality of the Conestoga River is at sake.  Livestock, fertilizers and pesticides all contribute to high nutrient levels in the River, while fallow fields contribute to soil erosion and sediment build up in the water.  With this in mind, my classmates and I had some predictions for what the water quality would be in the Conestoga.

As we canoed along, we saw a lot of litter in the river.  Tire after tire, old oil barrels, even a basketball hoop.  We could see cattle and horses up on the shallow river banks.  I had never canoed in an area surrounded by so much agricultural land, I was used to the more forested river banks of the Delaware back in New Jersey.  Although, we could see that most of the cattle were kept away from the river by small string fences.  There were a few billy goats that had escaped fencing and were sitting under a tree close to the water.  A feral white cat was drinking from the river.  A few plots of land with horses were not fenced in, but overall the animals seemed to be kept away from the river.  That was a good sign for the water quality of the Conestoga.

I was surprised by the amount of songbirds we saw as we canoed down the river.  Lots of American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, and sparrows.  We saw a few Mallard ducklings and many Belted Kingfishers.  I was disappointed when we didn’t see a single Great Blue Heron though; not many waterfowl.  I saw one Painted Turtle sunning itself on an old oil barrel.  At the end of our trip, we saw a stunning Bald Eagle in it’s nest.

All of these observations were turning over in my head and I still had low expectations for the water quality of the river.  We began chemical and biological testing with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to find out for sure.  We found the pH of the river to be 7.5, pretty neutral, although there is a large amount of limestone in the river that could balance out acidity.  The temperature was 63 degrees Fahrenheit.  Surprisingly, the dissolved oxygen level was at 9 ppm (above 5 being a good reading).  The nitrate level was at 4.1 ppm, 4x the recommended level and the phosphate level was at 0.3, 3x the recommended level of 0.1.  I thought these nutrient levels were very high and then our CBF guide, Tom, said that at one time the nutrient levels tested 45x higher than what is defined as healthy for Pennsylvania waterways.

We found a lot of macroinvertebrates too; crayfish, clams, leeches, snails and shrimp.  Blackflies were present, indicators of high nutrient levels, but we also found mayflies and scuds, species that are sensitive to water pollution.  In the end, we found the water quality index (a calculation that takes into consideration macroinvertebrates that are tolerant, facilitative and sensitive to water pollution) of the Conestoga River to be 28, with above 22 being excellent.  I couldn’t believe the water quality was excellent!  Tom had mentioned that a lot of the farmers were using cover crops in the winter, helping with sediment build up, in combination with the fences for livestock seem to be protecting the water quality from agricultural runoff.  He even said that between 1985 and 2009, farmers in Pennsylvania had reduced nitrate levels by 31%.

But then he said that we would see very different results in water quality after a storm event.  This Earth Day has been a rainy one and I’m curious what results we would find in the Conestoga now.  I was glad to hear that the Mennonite farmers had taken to fencing their livestock out of the river, but I think a lot more riparian buffers are needed along the Conestoga to help soak up nutrients after it rains.

In Pennsylvania, you cannot go one mile without hitting a stream.  Pennsylvania is also home to immense amounts of agriculture.  I think farmers and environmentalists must work together to ensure high water quality for the rivers and streams of Pennsylvania to protect the Chesapeake Bay.  Government funds should be allocated to farmers to help them implement best management practices.  I do think that the best management practices should strike a balance with the Mennonite/Amish traditional agricultural methods and environmentally-conscious methods.  Loving the planet is also about respect the people that inhabit it.

Above are a few (low quality) photographs taken with my cell phone at one of the mill dams along the Conestoga River.  We stopped here to eat lunch and discuss issues of shad migration, legacy sediment, and sediment restoration in streams/rivers in the U.S.  The River was very shallow at parts, so we had to do a lot of portaging.

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