A May 16 article incorrectly said Pennsylvania dumps more phosphorus into the Chesapeake Bay than Maryland or Virginia. It actually is responsible for less phosphorus pollution than either Maryland or Virginia. (Published 5/17/04)
The sailboat harbors and crabbing grounds of the Chesapeake Bay are miles from this shallow stream that runs through fields reeking of manure.
But the problems of the west branch of Little Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County become the bay's problems, sooner or later.
The animal waste that washes into the water here contains pollutants that eventually are carried into the Susquehanna River and then into the bay, where they feed blooms of harmful algae.
"It's all based on a very sophisticated scientific principle: Water runs downhill," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The Chesapeake Bay is downhill from Pennsylvania."
The Keystone State does not have an inch of Chesapeake waterfront. But it is a major source of the bay's pollution, because Pennsylvania includes so much of the watershed for the Susquehanna, a massive river that provides half the bay's fresh water.
A partner in the bay cleanup effort since 1983, Pennsylvania dumps more nitrogen and phosphorus into the bay than Maryland or Virginia and has made far less progress than those states in reducing the flow of those pollutants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
In particular, environmental groups have said, Pennsylvania does little to monitor how small farms spread manure on their fields and allow it to run off into tributaries leading to the bay. Lancaster County, home to 336,000 cows and some Amish farmers who use only manure for fertilizer, has become the epicenter of the state's water pollution.
So without changes in Pennsylvania, especially in Lancaster, the movement to save the Chesapeake cannot succeed, environmentalists have said.
Cathleen Curran Myers, a deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said last week that her state does feel the tug of the Chesapeake, even without the bay's coastline.
"We don't get to sit on the bay and eat crabs. We get to buy them from Maryland and Virginia and put the money in their pockets," Myers said.
"It's a tough sell, sure it is," in Pennsylvania, she said. "But I think we've sold it."
Last month, the state's voters approved a $250 million bond issue to improve sewer and water systems that contribute to bay pollution. And state regulators have proposed new rules to control phosphorus in runoff from farms.
Pennsylvania officials also submitted to the EPA a strategy for cleaning the state's rivers. The strategy included plans to increase forest land and to plant "cover crops" -- which hold down soil in farmland during the winter.
Still, the plans presented by Maryland and Virginia were much further along. Those states produced packets that explained their proposals. Pennsylvania sent only a computer spreadsheet of its ideas, which read more like the result of a brainstorming session than a final plan.
The EPA estimated that Pennsylvania contributes 39 percent of the pollutant nitrogen that flows annually into the bay -- more than Maryland or Virginia, which border the estuary. Pennsylvania also sends down large amounts of phosphorus, another key pollutant that -- like nitrogen -- is found in fertilizer.
Even so, the EPA said Pennsylvania is only 23 percent of the way to its goals, compared with Maryland's 57 percent and Virginia's 35 percent. Pennsylvania also trails Maryland and Virginia in terms of progress on phosphorus.
Once in the bay, nitrogen and phosphorus are food for large algae blooms, which block sunlight needed by underwater plants and consume large amounts of oxygen. The result is water in which fish can't live and crabs leap into the air to avoid suffocation.
Although Pennsylvania acted in the early 1990s to monitor the pollutants coming from its large farms, environmentalists have said the other states now do more.
Maryland has the most elaborate monitoring system, with farmers required to present a fertilizer-use plan to the state. The General Assembly also has addressed the other major source of pollution in the bay: wastewater treatment plants. Last month, lawmakers in Annapolis approved a sewer surcharge that will provide a steady flow of revenue to improve the treatment of wastewater, something without parallel in Pennsylvania or Virginia.
Pennsylvania "got a good early start, but the other states passed [it] in the 1990s," Bill Matuszeski, former head of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, said of the efforts to monitor pollutants.
Now, Matuszeski said, Pennsylvania is "pretty much running third."
Pennsylvania officials have disputed these numbers, saying the EPA's estimates haven't accounted for some of the progress the state has made in cleaning up the Susquehanna.
Environmentalists working in the state said that Pennsylvania has a strong agricultural lobby and that no watermen's groups would reap the bounty of oysters, crabs and rockfish in a cleaned-up bay. In addition, the state's main centers of population -- Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- are outside the bay's watershed.
Lancaster County contains the watershed for the Conestoga River, which is one of the most polluted in the Chesapeake watershed. In the county, progress has been uneven.
There is an excess of manure because the county's concentrated dairy and beef cattle operations are producing more waste than its crops can absorb as fertilizer. But there is nowhere else to put the waste, activists have said, so on the field it goes.
The county's many Amish farmers present a particular problem because they do not use any commercial fertilizer, Lancaster officials have said.
The result of the animal waste runoff is evident in the west branch of the Little Conestoga, a tributary of the Conestoga River. In a brown, cloudy creek like this one, the muck on the stream bottom can smell like sewage.
Such groups as the Little Conestoga Watershed Alliance have worked with farmers to use fences to keep cows out of streams. They also want farmers to allow a buffer zone of undergrowth near streams, and they encourage the farmers not to spread manure so often.
But many farmers, not wanting to yield a competitive advantage, are not easily convinced.
"You're barely making it as it is," said Earl Newcomer, a retired Lancaster County farmer who has worked with conservation groups. "If you change it, it might get worse."
When farmland is replaced by subdivisions and shopping malls, environmentalists have said, the problems might get worse. The acres of concrete prevent rainwater from soaking into the soil -- instead, the waster blasts through storm drains into streams, sending gluts of polluted mud downstream.
Those who have worked on the problem here in Lancaster said their job is tougher because the problem is so diffuse: It's not a single factory belching technicolor ooze.
"You can't just point to a pipe and say, 'There's the reason for all the pollution, and there's the guy who owns the pipe,' " said Mark Metzler, a scientist who has studied the Little Conestoga.
"You don't have any real major problem," in Lancaster, Metzler said, just a thousand smaller problems such as farms, houses and shopping malls. "But when you put them all together, you get a good-sized mess," he said.
As Pennsylvania's efforts to deal with pollution continue, the state faces a deadline. For decades, much of the sediment washed out of Pennsylvania has not actually flowed into the Chesapeake -- instead, it has piled up as silt behind the Susquehanna's dams: Safe Harbor and Holtwood in Pennsylvania and Conowingo in northern Maryland.
All the dams but the giant Conowingo are full, said Robert Walter, a research associate at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. By 2020, he said, the Conowingo, too, is expected to hit its limit, and all of Pennsylvania's runoff will be spilling into the bay.
"When that last dam is filled," Walter said, "that's going to be a catastrophic release."
Cattle laze beneath a tree near Little Conestoga Creek in Manor Township, Pa. Animal waste runoff is evident in the creek's west branch.