On a peaceful, cloudy day in upstate New York on November 3, 2016, the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta played host to the first annual Upper Susquehanna Watershed Forum, a chance for upper watershed and Chesapeake Bay representatives to engage with one another and create connections for sharing watershed restoration and protection resources. Communication and collaboration, the unofficial themes of the day, were evident throughout. Opening remarks were a joint effort from Maryland and New York, with Lou Etgen from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Les Hasbargen from SUNY Oneonta addressing the crowd. They were followed by Mike Lovegreen of the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, who echoed much the same in his State of the Upper Watershed: “We need to address the whole watershed.”
The Upper Susquehanna River forms the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and is unique in that 99 percent of its headwaters are protected and managed by a network of soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) working together as the Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC). USC’s structure allows SWCDs, which are established by state law and work to develop locally-driven solutions for natural resource concerns, to enter into multi-district agreements with a memorandum of understanding. These SWCDs work within their own locality, but also use these agreements to share equipment and training with one another. Together, these districts voluntarily work to improve water quality and quality of life for the 7,500 square miles under their care.
The area is overwhelmingly forested—close to 70 percent—which led farms to be built along the banks of streams, directly in the floodplains. “[Sediment pollution] is not running off the farms. It’s the farmland itself” that is eroding away, explained Lovegreen. Following Lovegreen’s State of the Watershed was a local government panel and examples of successful best management practices, or BMPs, with much of the conversation focused on stream restoration.
Communities take a local approach in the Upper Susquehanna, coming together to address streams in every way possible: at the source, across the landscape, in the stream corridor and with programs. Efforts are guided by the USC’s three focus areas: stream corridor rehabilitation, environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture and wetland restoration. “[The strategy] is a comprehensive public participation approach,” explained Tioga County SWCD’s Wendy Walsh. “Farms and communities have trust in the SWCDs, and that’s how we get things done.” Some restoration work might be triggered by forces of nature, but the effort to address it is personal and actionable.
Discussion of successful BMP efforts allowed opportunities for attendees to problem solve comparable programs in their own areas of the watershed; themed table discussions during the lunch hour provided networking and platforms for creative solutions. Participants left that day to return to their home organizations with individual commitments toward continued restoration and protection activities, and with a desire for more engagement in the future with their colleagues across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
With continued conferences that provide connections for the work being done all across the watershed and the actions that result from them, the vision of the Upper Susquehanna Coalition may be realized: a well-functioning Susquehanna River headwaters in harmony with itself and the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Caitlyn Johnstone is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program.