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In The Country

Protecting Our Watershed

John Alpaugh
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."  ~Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

(10/2014) Made up of more than 150 rivers and streams and spanning six states, the Chesapeake Bay watershed is also the most influential body of water in the US, guiding business and life on the East Coast for hundreds of years. Sadly, it has also been a victim of hundreds of years of human pollution, just like many other major transportation methods. Watershed pollution is not caused solely by those who work and live close to the Bay Area; much of the pollution begins with the groundwater across the entire watershed.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed begins in southern New York and reaches to southern Virginia. It stretches from the Delaware shoreline to the edges of West Virginia, covering all of Maryland and Delaware. Every body of water along the Appalachian Mountains between New York and Virginia contribute to this huge mass. And each person’s water usage in this region affects the health of the watershed.

Groundwater runoff is one of the major ways pollution affects the watershed. Heavy storms cause flooding of the waste water, and storm water carries it to nearby bodies of water or allows it to seep underground. Pesticide runoff from farms feeds the groundwater the same way, as do faulty septic systems and irresponsible dumping of household chemicals by residents.

Pollution does lasting damage to the environment for everyone and everything in the region. Large areas of water in the bay have become hypoxic, or extremely low in oxygen, causing aquatic life to suffocate. Fertilizer runoff from farms and homes cause phytoplankton blooms to increase to dangerous levels in the water system, and large populations of fish die in a short amount of time.

In many areas along the watershed, towns are reaching out to their communities to encourage green thinking. In Lancaster, PA, yearly runoff from 15 percent of all heavy storms and snowfalls cause a billion gallons of sewage water to overflow into the Conestoga River and eventually into the watershed. The county increased awareness and taught citizens about rainwater collection, adding rain gardens, retention ponds and planter boxes to local parks.

Washington, D.C. experienced a similar problem: Half an inch of rain washed wastewater and trash into the Anacostia River. Just like Lancaster, D.C. reached out to residents to promote sustainable methods for diverting wastewater. The town also emphasizes rainwater collection, even offering subsidies for homeowners to install rain barrels, rain gardens and porous pavements.

Within many communities, organizations work to combat similar problems. The Green Gathering held in Gettysburg, PA, in April of each year showcases the area’s local environmental organizations and their efforts to help the community make "green" choices. Citizens can help preserve their water resources both by making personal environmental commitments and by encouraging their local elected officials to be proactive about conservation.

Green gestures, no matter how small, can work to counteract the years of damage done to the watershed. Controlling runoff and limiting wastewater are great ways to start. Runoff control, which plays a major role in sustaining Lancaster and D.C., includes decreasing chemical pesticide use and rainwater reuse. Residents in every town along the watershed should take part in collecting rainwater for use in gardens, as well as looking for natural alternatives for pesticides.

Installing a grey water system is a great way to reduce residential wastewater. This project is relatively more difficult, but within the abilities of many homeowners. Grey water is the term for wastewater that goes down the drain as we do things like shower, wash our hands, and clean our laundry. In a grey water system, those household drains lead to a reservoir in the basement, where a filter and pump reuse that water to irrigate gardens and the lawn.

This system limits water use twice: once by reusing water already headed toward the sewer, and again by providing water to a garden without turning on the garden hose. With a big enough reservoir and a good timer, the system can be almost completely self-sustaining.

Using native plants in rain gardens can also increase sustainability. Native plants are less invasive than introduced species, so their growth is predictable and manageable. They are also ideal food sources for wildlife. And the more diverse a native population is, the healthier the garden will be, which will limit the need for pesticides and fertilizers.

The most useful tool for protecting our watershed is awareness of how our actions affect our world. The Chesapeake Bay and its contributing bodies of water are essential components for life in the region. The more we know about protecting the watershed, the better equipped we will be to preserve its health. The county Conservation District is a great resource for community members seeking expert advice on a range of environmental topics, from agricultural nutrient management and floodplain monitoring to best practices for excavation and earthmoving projects.

Several foundations exist to raise awareness about sustainability and protecting the Chesapeake Bay region. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, is focused on cleaning up the bay. Bernie Fowler, a former Maryland State Senator, is famous for his actions in office to help clean up the Patuxent River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The states within the watershed all have numerous parks that promote watershed preservation, including Pennsylvania’s Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve.

Visit to learn more about residential sustainability and to take part in any clean water projects in your area. Help keep our water clean so we can have a clean future.

To learn more about Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve visit