agriculture

Celebrating Mushrooms, Farmers, and Watersheds in Kennett Square

By Christina Catanese

“What’s that smell?” I asked, as we got out of the car in front of my friend’s house in Kennett Square, PA.

“Oh, the mushroom compost?” Jaclyn said. “I don’t even smell that anymore.”

It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but an earthy aroma that permeated the air the same way the culture of mushroom farming pervades this small Pennsylvania town.

Mushrooms are a way of life in Kennett Square.  Often called the Mushroom Capital of the World, mushroom farms in this area of Southeastern Pennsylvania produce the vast majority of mushrooms produced in the United States, outdone only by China in mushroom farming worldwide.  I heard some figures that mushroom farms in Chester County produce over a million pounds of mushrooms a week!

Enjoying a beautiful day in the Kennett Square community

Enjoying a beautiful day in the Kennett Square community

Every year, this proud tradition of mushroom farming is celebrated at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival.  I attended this year’s festival a few weeks ago, where I expected to and did eat many types and forms of mushrooms (including but not limited to the classic deep fried mushroom balls, the higher brow mushroom gorgonzola hummus, and even cream of mushroom ice cream).

What I didn’t expect was to learn so much about mushroom farming itself, and its role in the health of the watershed of the Delaware River, Red and White Clay Creek, and other local streams.  Part of the festival was an exhibition that walked through the process of growing mushrooms.  It really gave me an appreciation of the amount of work these farmers have to do to grow their crops.

A mushroom farmer harvests white button mushrooms from his exhibition at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

A mushroom farmer harvests white button mushrooms from his exhibition at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

It all starts with the substrate (the material the mushrooms are grown in), which generally consists of the waste products from other agriculture industries.  This mix of manure, hay, straw, wood chips, cottonseed meal, cocoa shells, and gypsum has to be kept at just the right temperature, pH, and light conditions in indoor mushroom farms, so the right fungi thrive and the wrong ones that could spoil the crop do not.  Once the mushrooms sprouted, I couldn’t believe how fast they grew, sometimes doubling in size in a single day!

After mushrooms are harvested, the substrate material can’t be used for mushroom farming anymore.  As at any farm, this compost can be a source of runoff and enter streams if not managed properly.  Source water protection efforts in the Delaware River Basin identified mushroom farms in the watershed as a partnership opportunity to help reduce nutrient pollution and potential sources of Cryptosporidium, a pathogen often found in manure that may cause disease.  These efforts work with farmers and conservation districts to set up ways to manage this runoff and protect sources of drinking water.

Phase 2 Compost: what the spent mushroom substrate looks like after mushrooms have been harvested and before it comes to your lawn or garden

Phase 2 Compost: what the spent mushroom substrate looks like after mushrooms have been harvested and before it comes to your lawn or garden

With its high capacity to hold water and nutrients, mushroom compost can be used as compost in many applications, like crop and garden fertilization, erosion control, and stormwater management.  Fall is the best time to seed new lawns and fertilize, so if you’re embarking on this process, consider mushroom or other organic soil amendments for your plants.  Like any fertilizer, mushroom compost must be applied appropriately to avoid nutrient pollution.

 

By the end of the day at the festival, I didn’t notice the smell of the mushroom compost much anymore, either.  When I did catch a whiff, it reminded me that this compost (like the mushroom ice cream I ate) was just one stage of a much larger process of mushroom farming.  It wasn’t the beginning or end, but part of a continuing cycle of growing, harvesting, consuming, and composting…all while boosting local economies and protecting local waters along the way.

 

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Here in the Heartland

130815-Iowa State Fair-2 1

Here in the Heartland, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cares about fairs. All kinds of fairs:  local, county, and the “big ones” for our four states. In a region that provides a huge share of the nation’s and the world’s food, forage, fiber, and fuel, these annual gatherings in late summer and early fall give ag producers and their families a great chance to show off their work and to educate their city cousins about the realities of growing food.

Since I became the Regional Administrator for EPA’s Region 7 office, I have attended the Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri State Fairs. I spent a great day in Des Moines last month at “the fair with which none can compare,” the Iowa State Fair. Hope the attached pictures show how much fun I had, and also how much new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy valued her day at the Fair.
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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Strong Farms, Clean Waters. Can Do

By Kelly Shenk

The back of my car sports two bumper stickers. One says “Save the Bay,” the other “No Farms No Food.”  When mentioning this to people, I often encounter a certain skepticism.  While I think most folks want to believe these objectives are compatible, they aren’t convinced it’s possible to have both profitable agriculture and clean waters at the same time.

A recent tour I took with the Schuylkill Action Network, or SAN, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, highlighted the SAN’s decade of work helping to keep farmers farming and the creeks that flow into Schuylkill River running clean.

Berks County farm

Berks County farm

We met two local dairy farmers who proudly showed us the extensive improvements they’ve made on their farms thanks to technical and financial assistance from the SAN and its partners like Berks Conservancy, the Berks County Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the water suppliers.

The farmers put in manure storage tanks, erected fencing, created vegetative buffers, and used no-till cropping.  They raved about how these practices help them run their farms more efficiently and economically.

For example, with a manure storage tank, they don’t have to haul the manure onto the fields daily, and they can make sure they only apply the fertilizer when the crops need it.  The fencing prevents trampled stream banks and cow manure in the creek.  No-till farming means they don’t have the labor and fuel costs associated with tilling a field. During the tour, the SAN representatives emphasized to farmers that implementing these practices helps them stay competitive for the long-haul.

The SAN firmly believes thriving agriculture provides an important part of a thriving watershed, and is achieving success by involving all stakeholders in the process. Through best management practices, farms are achieving profitable, competitive agricultural operations, and clean water.

Thanks in large part to the SAN’s efforts, Berks County residents have clean water to drink and clean streams to fish, great local food to eat, a thriving agricultural economy, and even a good local beer that relies on Schuylkill River water for brewing.

I think I’ll stop talking about my bumper stickers and start pointing out the great work groups like the SAN are doing to show people what’s possible.

About the Author: Kelly Shenk is EPA Region III’s Agricultural Advisor

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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It’s All in the Mindset

By Kelly Shenk

At a recent farm tour I was on, a dairy farmer in Augusta County, Virginia said:  “Pollution isn’t related to size, it’s related to mindset.”  And the mindset of many farmers is one of innovation, creativity, and a thirst to find better ways to keep their farms profitable and local waters clean for generations to come.

Farmers compare notes at the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum

Farmers compare notes at the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum

The farm tour was part of the recent Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  It’s my favorite meeting of the year.  It’s a chance for all the grantees who receive funding from the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund to share their successes and lessons learned from their projects to restore polluted waters.  The room was filled with over 100 of the most creative thinkers from State agricultural agencies, conservation districts, non-governmental organizations, farming groups, USDA and EPA — all with a common interest in preserving our agricultural heritage, keeping farmers farming, and having clean local and Bay waters.  We all came to the meeting with the mindset that we can have it all through creativity, innovation, and strong partnerships that help us leverage funding to get the job done.

From all the energized discussions with the grantees and farmers, it was very clear to me that farmers are true innovators and problem solvers.  They have a can-do mindset in figuring out how they can run their business efficiently in a way that is good for clean water and for long-term profitability.  As this grant program has matured, so has our approach.  We are finding that there is no better way to sell farmers on ways to reduce pollution than to have fellow farmers and trusted field experts showing how innovative solutions such as manure injectors, poultry litter-to-energy technologies, and even the tried-and-true practices such as keeping cows out of the streams can keep them viable for generations to come.  I’m confident that this mindset will catch on and that we can achieve our common goals of thriving agriculture and clean waters.

About the Author: Kelly Shenk is the Agricultural Advisor for EPA Region 3.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Arsenic Arresters

By: Hudson, Brett and George

“Water is the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing; it sucks out its innermost secrets and brings them to our very lips” (Jean Giraudoux, 1946). Water is essential for all dimensions of life. The quality of water in rivers and underground has deteriorated, due to pollution by waste and contaminants from cities, industry and agriculture.  Over one billion people lack safe water. Since water is so essential to our health, then we should strive to make our drinking water as safe as we can from contaminants.

We are a sixth grade team of three students from Whiteface, Texas. We read an article in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal concerning the high levels of arsenic in a family’s drinking water, which comes from their private well. It led to serious health problems for the entire family. Our team began researching the topic and learned that arsenic is a semi-metallic element and originates in many geological formations.  It is found in soil, river sediments, and the water supply in some regions. The groundwater of the Ogallala Aquifer supplies all our water at the tap, and for irrigating cotton, peanuts, and wheat crops of Texas. Arsenic-contaminated groundwater constitutes a health problem.  The EPA acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb).  Inorganic arsenic is a human carcinogen that is linked to liver, lung, kidney, bladder and skin cancers as well as Type 2 diabetes. Arsenic, according to the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, is considered the number one environmental chemical of concern for human health in the U. S. and worldwide.

In the agricultural region where we live, the drinking water has arsenic values from 11-30 parts per billion. Our team is researching and testing different methods to reduce the amount of arsenic in our drinking water and our soil. We are working with environmental scientists from Texas Tech University and West Texas A & M University to find solutions.

Is there anyone else concerned about this problem? Is any research being done in your area?  Are you an expert in this field who would share information with us? We are called the Arsenic Arresters and we are interested in educating others and decreasing the risk of arsenic contamination.

Hudson, Brett, and George enjoy working outside, being with family, playing basketball, and playing Minecraft when they’re not saving the world from arsenic contamination!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Up Close and Personal with Where Breakfast Comes From

By Kelly Shenk and Matt Johnston

Kelly:

PennAg Industries Association contacted me as soon as I became EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor and offered me the chance to get out in the field to visit three farms.  I assembled a team predominantly comprised of Chesapeake Bay Watershed Modelers to learn first-hand from farmers about their success and challenges of growing food in a safe, humane, and environmentally sound manner.  PennAg provided an experience that I know we’ll all take with us in our careers and personal lives, as demonstrated by Matt Johnston in this blog.

Learning from farmers on the PennAg farm tour

Matt:
It is all too easy to forget where our food comes from.  Every Saturday as a young boy I awoke to the smells of bacon and eggs coming from the kitchen.  By the time I got to the table, my mother had already set my place with two eggs sunny side up, two pieces of extra crispy bacon, a piece of toast and a glass of milk.  It’s a menu familiar to many of us and served weekend after weekend in homes across America.

Never once did I stop to think about how my breakfast got there.  Never once did I consider the animal production side of the equation – the side that includes thousands of workers, millions of animals, and tons of feed and manure.  Last week while on a tour of farms with colleagues, I was reminded of the other side of that equation in very personal ways.

The first stop on our tour was an egg layer facility. Conveyer belts criss-crossed a three-story tall warehouse seamlessly transporting eggs to an adjacent packing facility from the millions of hens that were stacked in cages and spread out over an area larger than a football field.  All the while, another set of belts sent the byproduct of our food production in the opposite direction, depositing the poultry litter in two-to-three story high piles.  When confronted with mounds of litter taller than your house, you begin to realize the inevitable byproducts of our Saturday morning meals.

This lesson was repeated at a nursery pig raising facility, where I jumped at the opportunity to hold an adorable young pig when the tour leader offered.  Unfortunately, the pig did not share my excitement and promptly announced its disgust by soiling my clothing with manure.  All the while, under my feet was a concrete holding tank full of the same viscous substance ready to be pumped out and transported to a nearby field.

Visiting the pigs on the PennAg farm tour

Our last stop was a small dairy.  There were no large holding tanks or conveyor belts constructing piles.  Instead, there was a single farmer with a few small pieces of equipment, a small barnyard, and a few adjacent fields.  Without the resources to stack or store manure, the farmer can only do one thing with it – spread it.  This is the way farmers have farmed for hundreds of years.

Whether the manure is stacked, buried, or spread, it is real.  What is now clear to me is that it is not the devil.  It’s a necessary byproduct of our society’s growing consumption of animal products.  However, like all byproducts of production, it can be harmful in high doses.

Yet we have the tools to lessen its impact.  We can spread manure according to nutrient management plan recommendations.  We can plant grasses and trees along waterways to intercept nutrients.  And we can work with farmers to make proper storage and handling equipment available.

After all, the manure is not going away, and I’m not going to stop eating eggs and bacon with my glass of milk on Saturday morning.

Learning from Farmers on the PennAg farm tour

About the Authors: Kelly Shenk is EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor.  Matt Johnston is a Nonpoint Source Data Analyst with the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Embarking into the Christina River Basin

By Andrea Bennett

Flowing through rolling hills, forests and farms, small and big towns, the Brandywine, White Clay and Red Clay Creeks, and the Christina River constitute the watershed of the Christina River Basin, which then empties into the Delaware River. This beautiful watershed is historically significant as a site where Revolutionary battles were fought, as well as the area where one of America’s most famous painters, Andrew Wyeth, flourished.  This watershed also provides over 100 million gallons of drinking water per day for over 500,000 people in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Barclay Hoopes Dairy Farm Before and After Restoration

Barclay Hoopes Dairy Farm Before and After Restoration

Many nonprofit and governmental organizations are implementing projects and programs to protect the watershed and its sources of drinking water.  Several years ago, these groups received an EPA Targeted Watershed Grant of $1 million to support the health of the watershed by restoring streams and installing agricultural and stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) to reduce runoff flowing into streams and groundwater.

I had the opportunity to see some of these BMPs in action recently on the annual Christina River Basin Bus Tour, sponsored by the Chester County Conservation District (CCCD), the Brandywine Valley Association, the Water  Resources Agency at the University of Delaware, and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. As we traveled through the watershed, Bob Struble, executive director of the Brandywine Valley Association, pointed out stream restoration and watershed protection projects.

At the Barclay Hoopes dairy farm, Mr. Hoopes showed us 1,500 feet of stream bank fencing installed to reduce manure loading to White Clay Creek. United Water Delaware and the City of Newark worked with the CCCD to install these fences to help prevent Cryptosporidium (a protozoan that can cause gastrointestinal illness) from entering the water.

We also stopped at the Stroud Water Research Center where we saw a brand new LEED-certified education building – the Moorhead Environmental Complex. The Center manages stormwater run-off through natural landscaping with porous surfaces, a green roof, and rain gardens with native vegetation.  The new building has a plethora of energy efficient technologies, including radiant heating, natural ventilation, solar power, and high efficiency windows.  Wherever possible, the center uses materials that were found locally, sustainably harvested, reclaimed, or recycled, and have low emissions of pollutants.

Kennett Square Golf Course Before and After Restoration

Kennett Square Golf Course Before and After Restoration

We visited the Kennett Square Golf Course and Country Club where Paul Stead,  the Superintendent, gave us a tour of the stream bank and flood plain restoration of the section of Red Clay Creek, which flows through the golf course. Because Mr. Stead educated the club membership about the importance of protecting the watershed, this project was funded not only by a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener Grant, but also by members of the golf club itself. The result is improved flood control, less impact to Red Clay Creek during storm events, and a more scenic golf course.

These are just some of the projects going on right now in the beautiful Christina River Basin.  Not only do they help to protect sources of drinking water, they also ensure that the basin remains a wonderful place to visit. The basin is one of my favorite places to go kayaking, hiking, and birding, and it’s easy to see how the White Clay Creek was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River in 2000.

As I left Myrick Conservation Center that day, it was fitting that I saw a Bald Eagle, a national symbol of America’s environmental treasures.  It’s one more reason to protect the waters of the Christina River Basin, so that eagles, as well as humans, have a clean and safe water resource today and in the future.

About the Author: Andrea Bennett has been with EPA for over twenty years as an Environmental Scientist in the region’s Water Protection Division.  Prior to joining EPA, she conducted ornithological research and produced films. When outside of the office Andrea enjoys birding and playing the mandolin.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Virtual Water, Real Impacts: World Water Day 2012

By Christina Catanese

In this digital age, it seems everything is becoming virtual.  There are virtual pets, virtual reality, virtual keyboards, and virtual books.  From your computer, you can shop virtually, and take virtual tours.

But virtual water?  How does that work?  We can’t consume water that we can’t see… or can we?

Virtual water is a concept that refers to the water needed to make a product.  We know we should drink 8 glasses of water a day to be hydrated, but it’s easy to overlook the gallons and gallons of water required to produce the food we eat and the things we buy.  This water is virtual in that the end-consumer of a product is not directly using water, but there was water that went into producing the item.  So by consuming these items, we use water indirectly, hence virtually. You might be surprised at how much the hidden water that we consume adds up.

Let’s take the cheeseburger I had for lunch yesterday, for example.  Estimates are that a 1/3 pound burger requires 660 gallons of water to be produced, most of which is for the beef.  One pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons, a pound of cheese requires 700 gallons, and two slices of bread require 22 gallons.  Why does meat require so much more water?  Well, it factors in what’s needed during the entire life of a cow: water for the animal to drink, to grow feed and hay, and to keep stables and farmyards clean.  Guess I should have gone with the salad after all: lettuce only takes about 13 gallons per pound to produce.

Once I started looking for this hidden water, the amount of water I found that I eat got higher quickly, and I started to see connections.  How much water did it take to grow the coffee I drank this morning, and to produce the milk and sugar I put in it?  The banana I put in my cereal?  The cereal itself?  The candy bar I had for a mid-afternoon boost?

Beyond diet, what about the paper all over my desk (1,321 gallons to make 500 sheets)?  The jeans I’m wearing (2,900 gallons for one pair)?  How about the water it takes to produce the fuel that brought all these things to Philadelphia for me to use and consume?  And the energy to power all my appliances at home?  The hidden water we use really adds up, and when you do the math, it starts to seem much more real than virtual.

The estimates of virtual water in this post come from National Geographic and the Water Footprint Network.  Check out this Water Footprint Calculator to see how much water you’re using, virtual or otherwise!  Are you surprised by these numbers?  Do they make you want to change your consumption habits?  WaterSense labeled appliances are one way to reduce your water footprint; what others can you think of?

 

March 22 is World Water Day, a commemorative day by the United Nations to raise awareness about water issues.  This year’s WWD focuses on water and food security and production all over the world.

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, and her work focuses on data analysis and management, GIS mapping and tools, communications, and other tasks that support the work of Regional water programs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.S. in Applied Geosciences with a Hydrogeology concentration. Trained in dance (ballet, modern, and other styles) from a young age, Christina continues to perform, choreograph and teach in the Philadelphia area.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Bay Website Focuses on Action

By Tom Damm

Click here to view a brochure produced by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee featuring examples of local actions to cut nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution.

There’s a new look to EPA’s Chesapeake Bay “pollution diet” website.

The pollution diet, or Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), was established by EPA in December 2010, based largely on action plans provided by the watershed’s six states and the District of Columbia.

The website now has a greater focus on activities at the local level happening around the 64,000-square-mile Bay watershed to reduce pollution impacting the Bay and its vast network of connecting rivers and streams.

One of the new additions is a brochure produced by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee featuring examples of local actions to cut nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution.

Check out those case studies and the other new items on the site, and let us know what you think.

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.  Prior to joining EPA, he held state government public affairs positions in New Jersey and worked as a daily newspaper reporter.  When not in the office, Tom enjoys cycling and volunteer work.  Tom and his family live in Hamilton Township, N.J., near Trenton.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the Delaware River Basin Forum

Learn more about the Delaware River Basin ForumWhen you go to your faucet and get yourself a glass of water do you know where your water comes from? It most likely comes from a local water body. It is important for citizens to understand where they get their water so they can take an active role in protecting it. For residents within the Delaware River Basin, there is an excellent and interactive way to learn more about the source of your water.

The Source Water Collaborative is sponsoring a Delaware River Basin Forum on March 10, 2011. The Forum will be a one-day, basin-wide event on issues affecting water resource sustainability for the more than 15 million people who rely on surface and ground water from the basin. The format of the event will reflect a theme of regional-local connection. At the central session in Philadelphia panelists will set the stage by framing current and forecasted influences on water resources basin-wide, such as water demand, land use changes and climate change. They will interact with satellite forums in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania where stakeholders gather to discuss local issues and needs. Click here to view the locations. Anyone can attend the forum at any location. It’s free and everyone is encouraged to be active participants. Click here to register to participate in a certain location.

Moreover, to promote the concept of “meeting green”, the events at all 8 locations will also be webcast live. If you can’t attend a local meeting, consider tuning in on March 10th via the links that will be posted on the Forum website (www.delawarebasindrinkingwater.org).

Source water protection means protection of drinking water supplies. Drinking water can come from ground or surface water, and a collaborative effort is needed to ensure that our sources of drinking water remain clean for future generations. Taking positive steps to prevent pollutants from ever reaching these sources can be more efficient and less costly than treating drinking water later. States within the Delaware River Basin each have unique authorities and approaches to source water protection. Visit the Source Water Collaborative to learn more about protecting drinking water. You can search for allies of drinking water in your area here.

We hope that you can go to one of the 8 locations to participate in the forum on March 10th. If you can’t, make sure to check out the forum online and be sure to visit www.delawarebasindrinkingwater.org  to get updates. If you are attending the forum, share what site you will be attending and what topics you would like to see discussed on a comment below! Hope to see you there!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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