New York

The Upper Susquehanna Forum Experience

It was a crisp fall day in the Upper Susquehanna watershed, but Choose Clean Water Coalition members were just getting warmed up. The State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta, hosted the Third Annual Upper Susquehanna Watershed Forum, “Connecting New York to the Chesapeake”, with nearly 100 advocates, clean water practitioners and agricultural experts coming together to share success stories and to build partnerships.

Ostego Lake

Ostego Lake

Some of us, who arrived a day early, braved the cold, rainy weather and learned more about the problems and successes facing Otsego Lake – the initial source of the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay. The members met at SUNY Oneonta’s research and education facility on the shores of Otsego Lake, just outside of Cooperstown, New York, and were afforded a short, but magnificent ride on their research vessel once the rain and sleet had eased up.

The following day, we rolled up our sleeves and prepared ourselves for an outstanding conference. It was time to get down to business. Choose Clean Water was welcomed by the Dean of SUNY Oneonta, and also by Congressman John Faso (R-NY). We expressed Choose Clean Water Coalition’s purpose, efforts and victories. Claire Flynn outlined the opportunities for funding provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and their Chesapeake Stewardship Grants. Wendy Walsh announced all of the great work the Upper Susquehanna Coalition does throughout the upper watershed, and what they can provide to assist others in their endeavors.

Government presence was there throughout, with several local government representatives (elected and appointed) who participated in the symposium. Speakers from NY Department of Environmental Conservation spoke on their achievements in the upper watershed. Mary Gattis, Director of Local Government Programs and Coordinator of the Local Government Advisory of Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, galvanized local government officials to collaborate and work together towards common goals.

What was the juiciest talking-point-of-the-day do you ask? Well, that would be agriculture. The biggest topic of conversation for the forum was agriculture – and a lot of it. Jordan Clements with Otsego County Soil and Water, assembled an excellent panel with enlightening dialogue on the region’s dairy farms featuring Dairy Farms and Farmers as Stewards for Water Protection.

Jordan also put together a field trip, which took place towards the end of the day to a local dairy farm, ran by a young couple who are wonderful stewards of their land and water.

College Camp

College Camp

We had a couple of excellent presentations highlighting local Coalition members and watersheds – from the Butternut Valley Alliance and the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed. Some of us then learned what Pecha Kuchas are – a timed lightening round of powerpoint presentations where the slides are timed to ensure that the speaker speeds things along. It was not, as at least one of us thought, a less visited ancient site in the Peruvian Andes. These presentations were very well done, quick, and highlighted local projects. We also learned a lot about conservation easements from David Diaz, with the Otsego Land Trust.

A few of us also went for a scenic hike on what SUNY Oneonta calls their College Camp – a beautiful 276 acre wooded parcel of land at the top of a large hill (or small mountain) connected to the main campus.

Partnerships were made and continued – some at the post-conference Happy Hour at a local brewery, which included local dairy products compliments of the American Dairy Association North East. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the work of the Coalition’s new State Outreach Lead for New York, Angela Hotaling with NY League of Conservation Voters, who coordinated all of the planning for this great event. Also a special thanks to Les Hasbargen, a professor at SUNY Oneonta who made the venue available to us.

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And before the day was over, there was a lot of discussion about what to do next year. None of the voices were about whether or not there would be a Fourth Annual Forum, but only about where and when it should be. One thing I know is that I’ll be there.

To simply put it – it was a great day.

Presentations:

New York’s TMDL and the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan

Upper Susquehanna Coalition

Aquatic Vegetation Species Program

From the Top of the Watershed to the Bottom of the Bay

Discovering the Butternut Watershed

Chesapeake Stewardship Grant Program

Otsego County Buffer Program

Citizen Science Stream Monitoring Program

Monitoring Otsego Lake

Discovering the Butternut Watershed via Physical Stream Assessment

Peter Marx is the federal affairs contractor for the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

Summer Rain and The Chesapeake Bay

I think we can all agree that water has been dumping into our local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay at an alarming rate this summer. Communities throughout the watershed have seen it with their own eyes, with major flooding events causing destruction of property and even loss of life. Maryland alone has experienced the rainiest and wettest year on record in more than a century, with 43 inches of rain falling in July through August. That is the most it’s rained since 1889. One begins to wonder just how much the precipitation has impacted the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program

Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program

One of the biggest impacts has been on the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna, which starts in Cooperstown, New York, flows through Pennsylvania, and reaches the Bay in Havre De Grace, Maryland, is the Chesapeake’s largest tributary. The Susquehanna provides half of the Bay’s fresh water and this year river levels have risen to record highs, which in turn has caused major flooding. So much so that Exelon Power, the company that superintends Conowingo Dam and sits on the Susquehanna River, opened the dam’s floodgates multiple times to relieve the pressure building behind the dam. As a result, the dam unleashed nutrient rich sediment and pollution. In the past, the Conowingo Dam was able to hold large quantities of sediment, but the reservoir has reached its capacity, so nutrient and sediment pollution is now making its way over the dam. According to Exelon, the recent amount of debris has been the largest in 20 years. In a statement, Exelon said to have removed 1,800 tons of trash from behind the dam and are still cleaning. When the dam is opened, pollution flows freely down into the Chesapeake, carrying everything from garbage to tree branches and trunks.

In addition to nutrient and trash pollution, the increased water is causing an issue many may not have considered. As an estuary, the Chesapeake receives its fresh water from its rivers and salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the all-time-high fresh water flow coming in from its tributaries, the Bay has seen a decrease in its salinity. This can pose a threat to plant and animal life, like oysters and blue crabs, which can only tolerate or thrive in certain water conditions.

Photo by Matthew Beziat

Photo by Matthew Beziat

Huge rainstorms have proven time and time again how devastating it can be for organisms on land and under water. With heavy rainfall comes not only stormwater runoff but agriculture runoff as well; the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay. The excess of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that enter the Bay power the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the underwater grasses. It robs the water of oxygen that plants and animals are dependent on to survive. The Bay’s underwater vegetation, where many blue crabs, fish and shellfish reside, is an indicator in determining the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Healthy underwater grasses provide food and habitat for animals, reduces shoreline erosion and improves overall water quality by slowing down the current and filtering sediment.

It will obviously take time for scientists to measure the full effects the rain has truly had on the Bay. In the meantime, let’s do all that we can to prevent any further damage from stormwater runoff by installing rain gardens, rain barrels, forest buffers, and implementing proper conservation practices. If you see trash, pick it up. It will end up somewhere it shouldn’t.  We can’t control the weather, but we can control our own actions.

Learn more about storm water runoff here.

Taylor Montford is the communications intern for the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

Coalition Success: Conservation collaboration in New York

Wendy Walsh of the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Coalition speaks at the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Forum in Oneonta, New York, on November 3, 2016. The event was organized by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and its partners to share local knowledge regarding restoration in the Susquehanna headwaters.

Wendy Walsh of the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Coalition speaks at the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Forum in Oneonta, New York, on November 3, 2016. The event was organized by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and its partners to share local knowledge regarding restoration in the Susquehanna headwaters.

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. 

Attendees of the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Forum, including representatives of local watershed groups, tour Silver Spoon Dairy Farm and their BMP initiatives in Garrattsville, New York, following the conclusion of the forum sessions.

Attendees of the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Forum, including representatives of local watershed groups, tour Silver Spoon Dairy Farm and their BMP initiatives in Garrattsville, New York, following the conclusion of the forum sessions.

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.