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What’s in store for the next 20 years?

“The next 20 years?” repeated Meghan Rogalus, the manager for the Schuylkill Action Network (SAN), with a smile.

“We started talking about the next 20 years,” she continued, “but we have a five-year strategic plan process so we’ll be kind of kicking off the next round of that, probably the end of this coming year.”

The main emphasis now will be responding to the needs of the watershed, she said. “There used to be more sewage impacts in the watershed, and a lot of that’s been addressed over the past two decades, thankfully,” she said.

SAN can point to significant achievements over those years, particularly the partnerships the organization has developed with over 300 entities working together to improve water resources in the Schuylkill River watershed.

What started as an effort to clean up coal mine waste drainage in the upper Schuylkill River in Schuylkill County has expanded into a total effort throughout the watershed to include working with the agricultural community in Berks County to help mitigate sediment and nutrient flows into the river.

“Our partnerships are looking at more innovative ways to clean up the water such as reintroducing freshwater mussels, for example, in some of our streams and ponds in the watershed,” she said.

Right from the start, building those partnerships was the most important driver of watershed improvement.

Kaitie Evers (left) and Meghan Rogalus (right), members of the Schuylkill Action Network Administrative team at the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary participate in the Crazy Hat Day segment of the 2022 Schuylkill River Sojourn. Photo courtesy of the Schuylkill Action Network.

“It really was a combination of partners at EPA Region 3, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the Philadelphia Water Department coming together first, and then quickly pulling in the Delaware River Basin Commission into the fold,” she said. “And not too long after that the Schuylkill River Greenways and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary were on board as well.”

A big driver for these original partnerships was that the Philadelphia Water Department provides drinking water to millions of people, but they only have active control in the city of Philadelphia of about 2 percent of the entire watershed.

“So 98 percent of that watershed is upstream of the city of Philadelphia, draining down there receiving all of the impacts” Meghan said. “Quickly recognizing that partnership and building relationships upstream were going to be key to helping keep that water source a good water source over time.”

It didn’t take long for partnerships to develop in Berks County in an effort to mitigate agricultural runoff.

Kent Himelright, Watershed Coordinator for the Berks County Conservation District, has been the District and the SAN for the last 7 years.

“It’s usually a lot about leveraging resources,” he said.

The Conservation District works with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

And the personal relationships that are developed among the various organizations with the local farming and conservation communities are paramount.

“If you ever talk with a farmer about SAN, they may not even recognize that name,” Kent said. “But the thing about SAN is it helps us know who the partner is and know what they do and know what their requirements are.”

Many different partners may be working on the same farm, and it is necessary to have an understanding of what the other is doing.

“Groups like Stroud Water Research Center and Berks Nature, we all may be doing work on a farm, and each might bring a different resource or a different funding source to the table,” he said.

The Stroud Center’s Farm Stewardship Program creates riparian buffers on streams and leverages funding to implement other agricultural best management practices on farms like manure storage or putting heavy use areas under roof or adding pasture fencing.

“They could bring in that near-stream funding component and either the conservation district or NRCS, was bringing in their funding,” Kent said. “It just worked out well. We can leverage the two funding sources and the two resources to meet that common goal of water quality.”

Schuylkill Action Network partners toured two sites in the Manatawny Creek subwatershed on Friday, September 8, 2023. The Miller Dairy (aka Willow Run Farm) and the Pine Creek Streambank Restoration Project. Photo courtesy of the Schuylkill Action Network.

One of the great things about SAN, said Kimberly Fies, Deputy Director of the Berks County Agricultural Department, is that they can bring various groups to the table and help identify areas where it’s critical to concentrate efforts for the greatest impact on water quality, for example at Lake Ontelaunee, the water source for the city of Reading.

“That was deemed to be more of a high priority area, along with some of the smaller watersheds coming in, so it continued to get its funding,” she said.

Within the SAN the Berks County Department of Agriculture helps promote and identify farms that need technical and/or financial assistance and then coordinate with the partnering agencies on how to best address the needs of the farm to be more efficient, environmentally sound and profitable.

Here is where the personal interaction among the participants builds trust that ultimately leads to success.

“One of the key aspects of Berks Nature is how important Larry Lloyd, senior ecologist, is,” Fies said. “It’s the relationship and trust that he builds with the individuals and his ability to be there and be consistent with them and help them and also come up with sometimes creative ways to address problems.”

Berks Nature is able to try to fill in those gaps even a little more adequately with their funding and to do projects and really help farmers figure out ways to be more efficient. Not only water quality and improving water quality, but also helping them maintain profitability.

“That’s really what SAN, the Stroud Center, the Conservation District and Berks Nature bring to the table,” Fies said.

“While we’re doing that, we’re also hoping to stay in agriculture and support the economy here in Berks.”

Meghan from SAN points to Stephen Miller as one who has welcomed SAN and its partnership at his Oley Township farm,

“SAN came here, and we discussed manure management,” Stephen said.

It was at the point in the barn where his grandfather’s manure management system that he installed in 1962 was worn out.

“Every day,” Stephen said, “I pushed the button and hoped it works, right?”

SAN and Larry entered the picture with additional funding from the NRCS.

“We did a lot of upgrades in the barn,” he said, where his dairy herd is housed.

Then a liquid manure storage tank followed a few years ago and finally a newly completed roofed area to store dry manure.

“That has helped me greatly as far as fertilizer and saving money on that end,” he said.

Stephen has also been employing cover crop rotations on the farm his grandfather bought back in 1942.

Steve Miller stands inside his heifer barn at his Oley Township farm.

He is looking to do a few more upgrades like stream bank buffers on the unnamed tributary to the Manatawny Creek that runs through his property.

“I hope that I’m doing something right here,” he said.

The improvements to the farm have also helped lighten his workload.

“Would I do it again?” he asked. “Definitely. I wish I would have done this sooner to save me. I have two new knees and two new shoulders. So, yeah, I guess I wish I would have done it all sooner.”

Written by Anonymous
Originally published in the publication, “Tributaries” – a shared effort between Berks Nature, The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, and Stroud Water Research Center, detailing several collaborative projects from this partnership that illustrate the challenges and solutions for sustainable land and water use in an agricultural setting, with an emphasis on farmer and community values and cooperation in the Maiden and Tulpehocken watersheds.

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