Cover crops

With help from the Tioga County Conservation District, a farm in Jackson Township planted a grass-radish mixture as a cover crop to reduce nutrient pollution of local waterways. Projects like these will be part of the county’s ongoing water cleanup plan.

With help from the state and surrounding counties, Tioga County is forming a plan to clean its waterways.

“All these nutrients are going into our drinking water and affecting our water quality,” said Erica Tomlinson, manager of the Tioga County Conservation District. “And excess sediment is a cause of erosion and flooding in recent years.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently released water quality reports with recommended mitigation for all 33 counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The counties were put in groups that will work together to each develop a plan; Tioga County is working with Potter and Bradford counties.

This was prompted by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load plan, which is requiring the entire watershed – comprised of parts of six states and the District of Columbia – to meet specific pollution reduction goals by 2025. The TMDL, the largest such plan ever developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, focuses on reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in waterways.

Tomlinson said this is something the Tioga County Conservation District has been doing for years.

“This has been a big push for years and we’ve done a lot with local farmers and landowners, but there’s still a lot to do,” she said.

According to the DEP report, in 1985, 4,097,000 pounds of nitrogen and 529,000 pounds of phosphorus were being delivered to Tioga County waterways each year. Since then, efforts have reduced that to 3,490,000 pounds of nitrogen and 345,000 pounds of phosphorus in 2019. The TMDL goal is 2,393,000 pounds and 243,000 pounds respectively by 2025.

The majority of the county’s total nitrogen and phosphorus load – 64% – is coming from large grassy areas, including lawns, cemeteries and golf courses, but not livestock pastures. Tomlinson said fertilizer is the main culprit, so reducing its usage will be a priority in the county’s plan.

“Actually reducing the amount of grassy areas by adding pollinator habitats and more trees will also be a big focus,” she said, adding that such projects are expected to be covered by grants from multiple sources.

She said homeowners interested in transforming their lawns into pollinator habitats or adding more trees can also apply for the DCNR’s Lawn Conversion Grant, which can be combined with neighbors’ lawns. Visit www.dcnr.pa.gov/Conservation/Water/LawnConversion to learn more.

The agriculture sector is also a major contributor of nutrient pollution, but fertilizer is still the main problem. According to DEP’s report, of the nitrogen load from agricultural areas in Tioga County, 58% is from fertilizer and 42% is from manure.

Tomlinson said farmers in Tioga County have already been taking steps to combat their contribution to nutrient pollution.

“We’ve been working with our local farmers for years – rehabbing stream banks, adding walkways and fencing,” said Tomlinson. “But a lot of them do stuff on their own, so that’s not accounted for in the report. That will be another part of the plan – finding out what’s really relevant and still needs to be done.”

Tomlinson said agricultural area projects will likely include rehabbing stream banks, which helps curb erosion and flooding, and encouraging off-stream watering of animals by using water troughs.

The DEP report details problem areas that Tomlinson said will be prioritized. Towanda Creek, which flows into the southeast corner of the county from Bradford County, yields the highest amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in the county. Zimmerman Creek in Liberty and Norris Brook in Middlebury also yield high amounts of nutrients, and Cowanesque River yields the most sediment in the county.

The next step is identifying projects not only in these problem areas, but across the county, said Tomlinson. She’s enlisting the help of several local groups like the Tiadaghton Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Anyone with ideas can contact Tomlinson at 570-724-1801 ext. 1300 or etomlinson@tiogacountypa.us.

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