It’s an overcast summer morning in Berkeley County, West Virginia, and Todd Butler has parked his pick-up truck atop one of the many hills that roll across his property. He points to the ridge of a nearby mountain peak, where the dense, forested tree line is broken by a small gap. “I’m sitting in my house, and I can see this mountain from there,” Butler recalls. “I never will forget the very first morning I sat there, and I saw a light on top of that mountain, and I thought, ‘What is that?’ And it turns out, they’d built a house up there.”
As the fourth-generation owner of Butler Farms, Butler has been witness to plenty of changes over the years: a decline in the number of neighboring farms, a rise in residential development, a technology boom for farming equipment. And while some features have remained the same—the original farmhouse, barn and cattle gates are still standing—much of the farm’s operation is dramatically different from when Butler’s great-grandfather bought the land in 1919. Almost a century later, the 200-acre family dairy farm has grown to more than 1,000 acres, home to beef cattle, an apple orchard and a bird and deer hunting preserve.
Over the years, Butler and his father, Bill, have transformed their property into one of the top conservation farms in the Mountain State. A variety of practices—from streamside fencing to cover crops—help to reduce runoff and promote water quality. Cattle drink out of troughs rather than straight from streams, and their feed wagons are continuously moved to different locations to prevent a single area from getting trampled or polluted with manure. The farm’s 72 apple orchard plots are farmed in strips; the land between each row of trees is left untouched to help slow the flow of water and prevent soil from washing away.
Sustainable pest management practices have made the land of Butler Farms a haven for insects, birds and other wildlife. Pollinator-friendly native flowers and grasses border the fields. Patches of sorghum, an annual grass that produces bright red berries, will feed birds and deer through the winter. When Butler was younger, he remembers entire fields being sprayed with herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. Now, he says, “we don’t use near the chemicals that we used to. Everything used to be in quarts or gallons; now we’re down to ounces.”
Representatives from states across the Bay region recently signed a cooperative accord that will help reduce the amount of nitrogen flowing from onsite wastewater systems into local waterways.
At the Chesapeake Bay Program office last week, representatives from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to share data related to the performance of advanced pretreatment technologies for “onsite wastewater treatment systems,” often called septic systems. Pretreatment of wastewater allows for the removal of potentially harmful pollutants such as nitrogen—but these technologies are often costly, and their approval takes time. Under the arrangement, information-sharing across states will help expedite the approval and deployment of these technologies, as well as offer cost savings to manufacturers and consumers.
Onsite septic systems account for less than five percent of the nutrients flowing to the Bay; advanced pretreatment technologies are expected to reduce nitrogen from these systems by at least 50 percent, as compared to conventional systems. Improvements in wastewater treatment will help achieve the clean water goals of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which encompasses the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Cover crops, streamside trees and nutrient management plans: all are exceptional ways to reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. And for father and son duo Elwood and Hunter Williams, restoring the Bay begins with conservation practices and a shift in mentality.
“We knew coming down the road that we needed to do a better job with keeping the water clean,” Hunter said. “We decided that if there was going to be a problem with the streams it wasn’t going to be us.”
Excess nutrients come from many places, including wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff and polluted air. When nitrogen and phosphorus reach waterways, they can fuel the growth of large algae blooms that negatively affect the health of the Bay. In order to reduce these impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a Bay “pollution diet,” known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Since the passing of the TMDL, many farmers in the watershed have felt the added pressure of the cleanup on their shoulders, but for the Williams family, having the foresight to implement best management practices (BMPs) just seemed like the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do.
”We don’t want to get to a point where regulations are completely out of control,” Hunter explained. “Farmers know what they’re putting on the ground so we have the ability to control it. Most people who have yards don’t have a clue what they’re putting on the ground when they use fertilizer. The difference has to be made up by the farmers because we know exactly what is going on to our soil.”
The Williams family began implementing BMPs on Misty Mountain Farm in 2006 by teaming up with the Potomac Valley Conservation District (PVCD). The government-funded non-profit organization has been providing assistance to farmers and working to preserve West Virginia’s natural resources since 1943.
The PVCD operates the Agricultural Enhancement Program (AgEP), which has steadily gained popularity among chicken farmers and livestock owners located in the West Virginia panhandle and Potomac Valley. While these two districts make up just 14 percent of West Virginia’s land mass, these regions are where many of the Bay’s tributaries begin—so it is important for area landowners to be conscious of pollutants entering rivers and streams.
AgEP is designed to provide financial aid and advice to farmers in areas that the Farm Bill does not cover. PVCD is run in a grassroots fashion, as employees collaborate with local farmers to pinpoint and meet their specific needs.
“It [AgEP] has been very well received,” said Carla Hardy, Watershed Program Coordinator with the PVCD. “It’s the local, state and individuals saying, “These are our needs and this is how our money should be spent.” Farmers understand that in order to keep AgEP a voluntary plan they need to pay attention to their conservation practices.”
Hunter admits the hardest part of switching to BMPs was changing his mindset and getting on board. Originally, Hunter was looking at the Bay’s pollution problems as a whole, but with optimistic thinking and assistance from PVCD, he realized that the best way to overcome a large problem was to cross one bridge at a time.
It wasn’t long before the Williams family started to see results: fencing off streams from cattle led to cleaner water; building barns to overwinter cows allowed them to grow an average of 75 pounds heavier than before, making them more valuable to the farm.
By using BMPs, the Williams family has set a positive example for farmers across the watershed, proving that with hard work and a ‘sky is the limit’ mentality, seemingly impossible goals can be met.
Hunter points out, “We are proud to know that if you are traveling to Misty Mountain Farm you can’t say, “Hey these guys aren’t doing their part.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
After eleven years, $40 million and more than 16,000 linear feet of pipe, West Virginia is set to bring a new wastewater treatment plant online and make huge cuts to the pollution it sends into the Chesapeake Bay.
Under construction in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, the Moorefield Wastewater Treatment Plant will replace four existing plants with one new system, marking a significant milestone in the headwater state’s efforts to curb pollution and improve water quality. Expected to go into operation this fall, the plant will remove 90,000 pounds of nitrogen and 93,000 pounds of phosphorous from West Virginia wastewater each year.
Funded by a range of sources—including the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the new plant is heralded as evidence that thoughtful planning and forward-thinking—especially where pollution regulations are concerned—can help a community move toward conservation and environmental change.
In the 1990s, the hundreds of wastewater treatment plants that are located across the watershed could be blamed for more than a quarter of the nutrient pollution entering the Bay, as the plants pumped water laden with nitrogen and phosphorous into local rivers and streams. Such an excess of nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive.
But in the last decade, technological upgrades to wastewater treatment plants have surged, and the pollution cuts that result mean these plants now contribute less than 20 percent of the nutrients still entering the Bay.
According to Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science with the EPA, the uptick in upgrades can be attributed to a number of factors.
“Wastewater treatment plants have always been regulated,” Batiuk said. “But [until the last decade], there wasn’t the science or the political will or the … water quality standards that could drive the higher levels of wastewater treatment that result in lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing into the watershed.”
As the science behind wastewater engineering has improved and the incentives for implementing upgrades have grown, more plants have begun to make changes. Some implement a “zero discharge” plan, using nutrient-rich effluent to feed agricultural crops rather than excess algae. Others—like the Moorefield plant—expose wastewater to nutrient-hungry microbes that feed on nitrogen and phosphorous; the resulting sludge, modified without the addition of chemicals, can be turned into compost rather than fodder for the local landfill.
Such modern upgrades to otherwise aging infrastructure have been celebrated as a boon for local communities and the wider watershed. While the Moorefield plant will, in the end, curb pollution into the Bay, it will first curb pollution in the South Branch of the Potomac River, into which it sends its effluent.
"The South Branch of the Potomac is a unique place,” Batiuk said. “People fish there, they swim there. This new plant helps more than the Chesapeake Bay.”
And Moorefield residents—including the Town of Moorefield Public Works Director Lucas Gagnon—plan to witness this local change firsthand.
“The residents in this area are aware of the Chesapeake Bay and its needed [nutrient] reductions,” Gagnon said. “But the biggest benefit for the local folks will be the reduction of nutrients in local waterways.”
“There are many people that fish and boat the South Branch,” Gagnon continued. “When this plant goes online, the water quality will be greatly enhanced, and they will have a much cleaner, better river to enjoy.”
In rural West Virginia, a fisherman casts his bright green line into a mountain stream. The stream is clear, the fish are biting and it takes just minutes to make a catch.
Dustin Wichterman, Potomac Headwaters Project Coordinator with Trout Unlimited, dips his net into the water and reveals a 10-inch brook trout. Its olive green body is flecked with red and gold, and its mere presence here is a welcome sign of health for the Pendleton County waterway.
Native to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, the eastern brook trout is a sensitive species that needs cold, clean water to survive. But as regional water quality has declined, so, too, have brook trout populations, leading to lost revenue and diminished fishing opportunities for headwater states.
Brook trout play a critical role in the watershed: they are an important part of the region’s natural heritage, a driver of economic growth and an indicator of environmental health. For these reasons, brook trout restoration was a listed outcome in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay Watershed. And for the past two years, brook trout conservation has been a top goal for the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Through the Bay Program’s Habitat Goal Implementation Team, whose members work to protect and restore wetlands, woods and other habitats across the watershed, brook trout have benefited from stream restoration, fish passage renewal and tree plantings.
As odd as it might seem, the health of a fish depends not just on the health of the creek, stream or river that it calls home; it is also tied to the health of the surrounding land. And poor land management, increasing development and expanding urbanization have been cited as leading factors in brook trout decline.
“This fish is a living symbol of how actions on land affect the health of our local waterways,” said team coordinator Jennifer Greiner.
The removal of streamside trees, for instance, is a common consequence of agricultural or residential development, as seedlings are trampled by grazing cattle or trees are felled for suburban growth. But a missing forest buffer means bad news for brook trout when stream banks erode, excess sediment ruins spawning beds and an absence of shade pushes water temperatures into a range that brook trout cannot withstand.
When, on the other hand, trees and shrubs are allowed to grow along waterways, their runoff-trapping roots keep the water clean and their shade-producing leaves keep the water cold.
So Greiner and her fellow team members have worked to bring brook trout into the land-use discussion, pushing the latest brook trout distribution data out to doers and decision-makers in the watershed. Because when land managers know where brook trout are, they are more likely to take the fish into account in land-use decisions.
Land trusts in headwater states have also found that brook trout can push private landowners to conserve, and Goal Implementation Team partners—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture Partnership among them—are using the iconic fish to promote on-the-ground restoration of riparian forest buffers.
Whether a farmer installs a fence that keeps livestock out of local rivers or a landowner decides to plant a series of streamside trees, education and engagement are critical to conservation.
“By becoming educated and engaged, landowners are able to protect the streams on their land for future generations,” Greiner said. “By protecting and restoring stream habitat, the brook trout, along with other species, are also protected for future generations to enjoy.”
In Jefferson County, W.Va., shaded streams trickle down the Blue Ridge Mountains into what will become the Potomac or Shenandoah rivers. The ridge is named “blue” for its characteristic purple-blue haze. No, this isn’t some kind of rural smog, but isoprene, which the trees on the mountain release into the atmosphere.
Image courtesy Eoghann Irving/Flickr
Despite the pristine scenery found in this part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a visit to Jefferson County on a rainy day can expose a darker side. Thanks to aging infrastructure, the county has faced flooded roads and a river that carries an unknown amount of pollutants.
Residents knew they had to take action to ensure their mountain’s health. So, the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was born. And in just over 18 months, the non-profit organization has arranged stream cleanups, showcased stormwater management practices and monitored water quality in a stretch of the Shenandoah River.
Why monitor water quality?
To monitor water quality, biologists take water samples from a stream or river and send them into a lab. There, the amount of pollutants in the water is measured. Monitoring a series of sites in a single waterway can tell us where these pollutants might be coming from.
Before the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition was formed, monitoring in the Shenandoah River was completed by a single Shenandoah University professor. Now, the college will train coalition volunteers to take water samples, as the coalition works to determine pollution sources and track the river’s long-term health.
“Our friends and neighbors on the mountain had very adamantly voiced that they wanted real facts as to what is in our lovely Shenandoah River,” explained Ronda Lehman, Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition Chair.
“We hope our river monitoring will help delineate whether our issues are born from our county’s farms, septic tanks or stormwater runoff, or a combination,” said Ronda.
Curbing runoff, preventing floods
Close to 17,000 commuters leave Jefferson County, W.Va., for Washington, D.C., each morning, and many of them travel on Route 9. But this road often floods, as it collects stormwater runoff from surrounding properties.
The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition hopes to curb the amount of runoff coming from one of these properties—an old stone church now called the Mountain Community Center.
“A little calculating showed us that there are 1,400 gallons of water that run off the roof of the church during average rain events,” said Ronda.
The coalition will divert rainwater from the roof of the building into rain barrels and cisterns and curb the flow of sediment and stormwater with a filter installed at the end of the driveway.
“Incorporating different methods of mitigating that flow of water would give us an opportunity to showcase different practices for our neighbors to incorporate onto their own properties,” Ronda said.
If water quality monitoring and stormwater management seem too “scientific” for your tastes, then an old-fashioned trash cleanup could be for you! The Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition held its second annual cleanup in July.
The cleanup area is popular among the public, but has a history of being dirty.
The coalition hopes to amend this littering problem. “We will be purchasing banners to be placed at the busy ‘put ins’…to remind patrons to take their trash with them," said Ronda.
True to its name, West Virginia’s “Lost River” disappears.
Lost River begins in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. But just a few miles downstream, it flows into a series of caves and is carried underground. Known locally as “the Sinks,” these caves shelter the river until it reaches Wardensville, where it emerges under a different name: the Cacapon.
Image courtesy Mark Plummer/Flickr
Looking for Lost River? Catch a glimpse in the 3,700-acre Lost River State Park. And if the weather is hiker-friendly, take a trip up to Cranny Crow Overlook, where, at 3,200 feet high, you will be able to see five counties in two states. The park also offers opportunities for horseback riding and swimming.
Image courtesy vitia/Flickr
Explore the nearby Trout Pond Recreation Area to enjoy the only natural lake in West Virginia, created by a sinkhole that filled with water from a mountain stream. Trout Pond and the neighboring Rockcliff Lake boast sandy mountainside beaches, optimal fishing and challenging hiking trails.
More from Lost River:
Six of the seven Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions – Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia – have submitted their final cleanup plans as part of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, a “pollution diet” that aims to put in place all restoration measures needed for a clean Bay by 2025.
The final cleanup plans, officially known as Phase 2 Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs), were submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last Friday. New York submitted its draft plan, and is working with the EPA to finalize that plan.
The cleanup plans were developed by each individual state and the District, working closely with counties, municipalities and other local partners. The cleanup plans identify specific restoration measures each jurisdiction will take to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to the Bay and its local rivers.
According to the guidelines set in the TMDL, at least 60 percent of necessary pollution reductions must be achieved by 2017. Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to putting all needed pollution control measures in place no later than 2025.
Visit the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL website to review and learn more about the cleanup plans.
West Virginia may be far from the sailboats and blue crabs that we normally associate with the Chesapeake Bay. But folks at the Cacapon Institute in the state’s eastern panhandle are helping students install rain gardens, speaking with local farmers about reducing pollution, and spearheading community education initiatives – all in the name of helping the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy mdmarkus66/Flickr)
Founded by a husband and wife team in 1985, the Cacapon Institute was originally known as the Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory. PCREL was established to research and teach Appalachian natural history and water quality issues around the Cacapon River, an 80-mile-long Potomac tributary that is designated by the EPA as an American Heritage River.
The Cacapon Institute’s dual mission of scientific research and education makes it stand out from organizations that emphasize one over the other. Today, the Cacapon Institute continues to balance community education and outreach with science “experiments” such as deer fencing and trout restoration.
Ever get sick of all this environmental talk? Do you think you could stop pollution if you were a county land manager or decision maker? The Cacapon Institute gives K-12 students that opportunity through its interactive Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum.
Stream Cleaner allows users to decide how land is used and see the effects of those decisions on natural resources. It’s an interactive, engaging way for students to learn about water and pollution issues.
The program is part of the greater Potomac Highlands Water School, a website that provides resources for teachers and students seeking to learn about their local environment. Slideshows, interactive games and vocabulary lists make it a hybrid of “old school” and digital learning. No matter what generation you belong to, it's worth a visit.
The Cacapon Institute isn’t just teaching students vocabulary words; it’s challenging them to collaborate on water quality projects.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Each spring, Cacapon sponsors the Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum, a program in which classes work together to develop solutions to specific, real-world pressures on the Potomac and the Bay.
Participating students learn from the best; collaborators range from local farmers and businesses to state and federal agencies. Projects such as Farmers as Producers of Clean Water hinge on input from local farmers about which best management practices they’d most likely adopt. By understanding the needs of different stakeholders and working with them to develop mutually beneficial solutions, Cacapon is creating a community that’s strengthened by cooperation, rather than oppressed by regulation.
The Cacapon Institute hopes that by starting with the younger generation, it can engage the wider community. This statement on its website says it all:
As educators, we work to create a future where a stream without a buffer looks as out of place as a smoker in a conference room looks today. To foster that vision, our environmental education efforts focus on students first and, through them, the larger community.
(Image courtesy Cacapon Institute/Facebook)
Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, it’s easy to use winter as an excuse for, say, drinking lattes, neglecting your exercise regimen and catching up on your favorite television show instead of getting outdoors. These indulgences provide me with some comfort in the face of frigid temperatures, high winds and slick road conditions.
But as my jeans get tighter and my skin gets paler, I’ve become inspired to conquer the season and all its hazards (realistically speaking, that is). Rather than hibernating like an animal, I’m putting my four-wheel-drive to use and showing winter who’s boss!
From cross country skiing to bird watching to doing donuts on frozen lakes, there are some outdoor experiences you can only have during our coldest season. We’ve compiled a list of six great places across the Bay watershed to experience winter. Just think how much better that hot cocoa will taste after you’ve felt the winter wind in your face!
If a winter flu’s got you down, a dip in Berkeley Springs may save your health. George Washington himself frequented Berkeley Springs to bathe in the warm mineral waters that flow from five main sources in the town. The springs discharge 2,000 gallons of clear, sparkling water per minute. The water remains at 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. It isn’t quite hot tub temperature, but it’s still warmer than a typical winter day.
The town even holds a Winter Festival of the Waters each year to celebrate the springs!
(Image courtesy @heylovedc/Flickr)
A drive through rolling hills, orchards and farmland will bring you to Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park, located the base of the Appalachian Mountains. Rock climbing, trout fishing, cross country skiing, winter hiking and horseback riding are just a few of the activities these recreational areas offer.
(Image courtesy Compass Points Media/Flickr)
The forests covering the parks are known as “second growth.” The “first growth” forest was logged extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to support local agriculture and produce charcoal for the nearby Catoctin Ironworks Furnace. In the 1930s, the land was set aside and reforested by President Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration.
Hikers and cross country skiers will come across waterfalls and large, 500 million-year-old boulders. These rocks have been exposed as the Appalachian Mountains have flattened out over time. Trails at Cunningham Falls center around the waterfall for which the park is named. Known locally as McAfee Falls, it is the largest cascading waterfall in the state of Maryland.
Venture to Hills Creek State Park, near the Pennsylvania/New York border, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing but forests. Four hundred acres of state park land are bordered by nearly 13,000 acres of state game lands, making the park an ideal destination for trappers and hunters. Winter sports fanatics will be in heaven – the park’s five and half miles of trails are open to hiking and cross country skiing in winter.
(Image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
Take the kids sledding on the hill near the seasonal beach; with adequate snow cover, you’ll be able to fly! If you’re lucky, you may be able to ice skate on the 137-acre Hill Creek Lake. (The park doesn’t monitor ice thickness, but does provide updates on winter conditions.)
In the winter, scenic mountain vistas are all the more impressive; without any greenery in the way, you can see for miles. For breathtaking winter views, visit Loyalsock State Forest, part of Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountain region. The park’s elevation is relatively high for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which means you can count on winter conditions every year.
The park manages two trails specifically for cross country skiing, but skiers are welcome anywhere. Thirty-five miles of trails transverse the park, connecting visitors to a 130-mile regional trail system. Snowmobiling is also popular here.
(Image courtesy Richban/Flickr)
(Image courtesy Patuxent Research Refuge)
If winter travel isn’t in the cards for you, look no further than Patuxent Research Refuge, the 13,000-acre wildlife refuge halfway between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. You’ll be surprised by how secluded you’ll feel just 20 minutes off I-295 (Baltimore/Washington Parkway).
Borrow binoculars and birding guides from the visitor center and walk the family-friendly trails to catch a glimpse of cardinals, tundra swans and Canada geese. The visitor center also hosts public programs for kids and houses life-sized “stuffed” animals and interactive exhibits that explain the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Seasonal hunting is also popular on the refuges’ North Tract.
If you’re still itching to get a little snow, head to the southernmost selection on our list. During this time of year, Shenandoah’s weather is unpredictable – often 10-20 degrees cooler than temperatures in the valley. Leafless trees allow you to see for miles across the park’s nearly 200,000 acres. Portions of Skyline Drive and visitors’ services are closed through March, but hiking, backcountry camping and simple Sunday drives are still welcomed! Look for bobcat tracks in the snow along the trails. If you’re brave and fit, check out the magnificent view at the top of Old Rag.
(Image courtesy Brandon Feagon/Flickr)
Now you tell us: what’s your favorite Chesapeake Bay place to explore in winter?
West Virginia will invest $6 million annually for 30 years toward wastewater treatment plant upgrades that will reduce nutrient pollution to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
The money, which will come from excess state lottery funds, will fund about $85 million in bonds that will help pay for upgrades. The funding will cover about 40 percent of the expected cost for the upgrades.
The upgrades will help West Virginia meet new pollution-reduction goals that are part of the federal pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. West Virginia has 13 wastewater facilities that need to be upgraded to meet nutrient limits.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the bill into law on April 6.