Responsible Land Use

Green Infrastructure Research All-STARs

by Ken Hendrickson and Jennie Saxe

 

An example of green infrastructure to help in managing urban stormwater.

An example of green infrastructure to help in managing urban stormwater.

A few weeks ago, Major League Baseball (MLB) held its annual All-Star Game. This is a chance for the best players from across MLB to work together and showcase their talents. EPA recently had a chance to host an “all-star” event of its own. On July 24, EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region and EPA’s Office of Research and Development hosted a kick-off meeting of researchers who received Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants. Since this was a kick-off meeting, it felt like less like a mid-season break, and more like spring training.

Like a baseball team focused on winning the pennant, these researchers are all focused on one goal: understanding the performance and effectiveness of green infrastructure in an urban setting. Five colleges and universities received a total of nearly $5 million from EPA to focus research on green infrastructure in Philadelphia. These research projects, announced on a snowy day this past January, will support the groundbreaking Green City, Clean Waters Partnership agreement between EPA and the City of Philadelphia.

Why would the research teams meet when the research hasn’t yet begun? This type of meeting provides researchers with a full picture of all of the research that is planned, and allows researchers to identify opportunities for collaboration. In this way, the individual teams can better understand where, how, and what their peers will be investigating. Proposals were developed several months ago, and it’s important to discuss the plans, processes, and research sites that have been refined since the projects were funded.

While the research may be conducted by these “academic all-stars,” it is much more than an academic exercise: the research is happening on the ground in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, and – by making it easier and cheaper to protect water quality through greening communities – the benefits will go to the residents of the city. In addition to the more than 30 researchers who attended to present their plans, dozens more people learned about the research plans by attending via webinar – maybe they will be inspired to pursue green infrastructure projects in their communities.

In research, as in baseball, with hard work comes important results. We’re certain that when we check back with these researchers in a few years, they will have many more insights to share.

 

About the authors: Ken Hendrickson and Jennie Saxe work in the Water Protection Division of EPA’s Region 3 office in Philadelphia.

 

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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Farm Conservation Practices are Working in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

by Kelly Shenk

As the agricultural advisor for EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, I’ve had the opportunity to accompany the EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator in talks with farmers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed through roundtable discussions and tours of their farms. We’ve observed their successes, challenges, and opportunities.  It’s encouraging to see how engaged farmers are in implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality.

Last month the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that pollution controls put in place over the last four years have resulted in an estimated 7% reduction of nitrogen, 11% reduction of phosphorus, and 6% reduction of sediment in the Bay Watershed.

Agriculture is responsible for about one-third of these reductions because producers have stepped up their conservation practices such as cover crops that take up residual nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil after crops are harvested. Other effective conservation practices include tillage that prevents nutrients and sediment from running off of cropland; and fencing to keep cows out of streams.

While this progress is encouraging, there’s still much that needs doing to restore the Bay.  Using 2009 as a baseline, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL or pollution diet calls for having measures in place by 2017 to achieve at least 60 percent of the pollution reductions necessary for restoring the Bay to water quality standards.  The Bay jurisdictions are in the process of achieving this objective through upgrading of wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, increased implementation of agricultural conservation practices, improving urban stormwater management, and addressing air pollution sources. All sources are tackling their share of the challenge

The pace of the Bay jurisdictions’ pollution reduction efforts will get quicker moving forward.  For agriculture, I think the keys to success are strong state programs, targeted federal and state financial and technical assistance, incentives that engage more producers, and continued innovation.

We’re encouraged by some of the progress that’s already being made.  We are seeing increased financing for high priority practices promoted by the States such as stream exclusion and cover crops.  States are strengthening their programs for addressing water quality concerns from small animal operations.  We’re also seeing incentives such as Ag Certainty programs to engage more producers in conservation practices.

In my time out in the field, I am always inspired at the creativity and innovation of farmers.  With a good knowledge of the States’ pollution reduction goals, targeted financial and technical assistance, and the flexibility to reach water quality goals in a way that works for their business, I’m confident they can get the job done.  But it will take all of us working together in all sectors, building on the progress that we’ve made thus far, and staying on track to reaching our goals of restoring our local waters and the magnificence of the Chesapeake Bay.

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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Recovering from a heavy dose of winter

By Jennie Saxe

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Is this winter over yet? Fortunately, we’ve had a few days in the mid-Atlantic that make me think spring could be just around the corner. Even as we prepare to turn the page weather-wise, some remnants of winter will stick around. This year, one of those remnants is salt…lots of salt.

A couple of years ago, we brought you some information on smart ways to apply salt to keep the roads safe in winter weather and protect water resources at the same time. While that winter was relatively mild, winter 2014 has been another story. Municipal salt supplies are running low, and recently it’s been tough to find “snow melt” of any kind in neighborhood hardware stores.

With the snow now melting, the leftover salt is headed right toward our water supplies. Here are some of the impacts that increased salt can have:

  • Road salt runoff can increase levels of conductivity (a substitute measure of “saltiness”) in streams and cause stress to aquatic life like fish and macroinvertebrates – in high enough concentrations, salt runoff can be toxic to sensitive organisms
  • Salt increases the density of water which impacts the normal turnover processes in waterbodies – this can also affect aquatic life through depleting oxygen levels in deeper water and nutrient supplies in the upper part of the water column
  • Salt has more of an impact on freshwater systems than on those that are brackish or saline already
  • Salty runoff that enters drinking water supplies could cause elevated sodium levels that can have health consequences

If you’d like to see how one of our local waters, the Schuylkill River, responds to road salt runoff, the US Geological Survey (USGS) has some interesting data. Salt runoff from roadways or salt blown by the wind could be responsible for that conductivity spike in mid-February.  Since the chloride from road salt (sodium chloride) is not removed or transformed by natural processes, the only way to bring levels down is through dilution, usually by way of rainfall. Toward the end of February, you can see the conductivity levels decrease.

I’ve used some of our recent spring-like weather to sweep up the salt around our house. This will prevent even more salt from washing down the drain and into the creek near my house. Cities and towns can use street sweeping as a mechanism to remove excess salt from their streets at the end of the winter season.

Did you have any low-salt methods for handling the snow this winter? How are you keeping the left-over salt from getting into our waterways?

Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and is currently a Water Policy Analyst in the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia. When not in the office, Jennie enjoys spending time with her husband and 2 children and cheering for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

 

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 about the Network: Funding Agricultural Practices that Restore Clean Water

A network of technical professionals visit a PA dairy farm that received financial assistance to install agricultural conservation practices which are good for business and local water quality.

A network of technical professionals visit a PA dairy farm that received financial assistance to install agricultural conservation practices which are good for business and local water quality.

 

by Kelly Shenk

 If you are a farmer in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, there are some great workshops providing information on ways to finance conservation practices to restore local waters and the Chesapeake Bay. The University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center  is holding a series of Agricultural Finance Workshops in Delaware and West Virginia and the Upper Susquehanna region in Pennsylvania later this year.  In January and February, I participated in the Ag Finance workshops that were held in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and found them extremely informative.

These workshops provide a wealth of knowledge about programs to assist in reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution. I learned that while funding is available, certain procedures need to be followed closely.  Some of the types of funding available include: USDA Farm Bill funding; state agricultural cost share funding; federal and state loan programs; public and private grant programs; and tax credits.  There are also creative ways to combine these funding mechanisms that reduce the amount you, as a farmer, would pay.

Take for example, fencing in the Shenandoah Valley. Fencing is a low-tech way to protect waterways by keeping cattle out of streams. There are a number of programs to help fund stream exclusion and we heard about several at the workshop:  Farm Bill programs, the VA agricultural cost share program that covers up to 100% of the cost of stream exclusion, and other programs for farmers who need more flexibility in the type of fence and width of buffer installed. There’s even a program to pay farmers $1 for every foot of fence they have paid for themselves to cover the maintenance costs.

 The workshop presenters are familiar with each other’s programs, so they know how to “piggy back” programs to minimize the cost to farmers.  Most importantly, they know the producers in their region and understand their issues.  They discuss the available options with the farmer, decide on a plan of action, and then identify the program or mix of funding programs that will meet the farmer’s needs.  With this approach, the technical network helps farmers address issues with the least amount of cost, hassle, paperwork, and confusion.

I left these workshops encouraged by the dedicated cadre of technical professionals that are out in the field every day working with farmers to find solutions to protecting water quality while keeping farmers farming.

For more information on future workshops, contact:  Jill Jefferson, University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, at jilljeff@umd.edu.

 

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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The Art of the Natural Garden”

example of a native plant

example of a native plant

 

by Todd Lutte

  It’s once again time to experience that first “breath of spring” at the Philadelphia Flower Show.  A local tradition with international recognition, the Philadelphia Flower Show has been a prelude to spring for more than 150 years with EPA’s mid-Atlantic Region being a part of that tradition for more than two decades.  As one of the city’s most anticipated annual events, the Flower Show brings thousands of garden enthusiasts to the floors of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in early March.

The theme for the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show is “ARTiculture…where art meets horticulture”.   The EPA exhibit is titled “L’Art du Jardin Natural” which translated is “The Art of the Natural Garden”.  The display showcases native plants, wetlands and sustainable landscaping techniques in a passive setting

Art and the natural world have forever been intertwined in the human imagination but our scientific understanding of the complexity of these beautiful places has only become its own field of study in more modern times. Through this study, we have learned that our rivers, streams, and wetlands are not just pretty pictures—they are dynamic ecosystems that continually respond to cues from climate patterns, local hydrology, invasive species, human disturbances, and many other factors.

The beauty of these wild places is founded upon resilience as an amazing number of plant and animal species have evolved to fill special ecological niches across very different habitat types. While these native species benefit from clean waters, they also enrich the whole ecosystem through functions that control and abet plant cover, sediment supply, water quality, flood control, and biodiversity.

The use  of native plants has many benefits, including relatively low maintenance, which saves both time and money.  Pollinators, beneficial insects, and other wildlife rely on native plants for food and habitat, and invasive species are less likely to colonize an area with an established native plant community.

If you’re in the area, stop by and experience “L’Art du Jardin Natural”.  The 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show runs from Saturday, March 1st   through Sunday, March 9th at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia.

 

Todd Lutte is an EPA environmental scientist who works to enforce laws and regulations for the protection of wetlands. Todd is a key partner in creating EPA’s exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show

 

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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Rain Gardens in the Winter

My rain garden in February

My rain garden in February

By Sue McDowell

Back in April, 2013, I wrote a blog about the benefits of rain gardens.  Now with almost half the country engulfed in winter and freezing temperatures, should we just forget about our gardens for now?

In a way, yes. Your rain garden should take care of itself throughout the winter months and be refreshed for the spring.

If you recall from the previous post, a rain garden is a garden designed as a shallow depression to collect water that runs off from your roof, driveway and other paved areas. The gardens are filled with varieties of native plants and shrubs that are both water and drought tolerant.  It’s a sustainable and economic way of dealing with rainfall as nature intended – all year round. It might not look like it, but your garden still works hard throughout the winter months.  In the winter, rain gardens continue to manage rain water (or snow melt) by holding the water briefly to allow slower infiltration.

Winter rain gardens are similar to any garden – the flowers die back, waiting for spring to re-emerge.  Most rain garden designs plan with winter in mind, such as using native grasses, dry seed pods from native coneflowers (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) .

By not cutting back last year’s growth, the rain garden can provide food and cover for winter birds such as sparrows and juncos.   Adding a fresh layer of mulch and raking out any leaves will keep the rain garden functioning during the cold months and ready it for the spring growth.

Here’s a bonus tip: when you do ready your rain garden for the spring, you can put the leaves and cuttings you remove from your rain garden in your home composter. If you’re not composting, but plan to start when the weather warms up, the brown leaves and cuttings will be a perfect starter food for your compost pile.

What are some of your observations of your rain garden through these winter months?

About the author: Susan McDowell joined the EPA family in 1990.  Her work on community-based sustainability throughout her career includes the award-winning Green Communities program which has traveled across the United States and internationally.  She brings her ‘ecological’ perspective to her work including Pennsylvania’s nonpoint source pollution program the mid-Atlantic National Estuaries, and the G3 Academy (Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns).

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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Please Recycle, Our Oceans Will Thank You

By John Senn

One of my favorite things about living in Washington, D.C. is Rock Creek Park, a 1700-acre space that’s one of country’s oldest federally-managed parks. I live less than a mile from the park’s winding and secluded trails, and run on the trails at least once a week. For me, it’s the ideal way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Rock Creek Park is also home to a wide range of wildlife; it’s not uncommon to see a hawk or woodpecker among the park’s tall trees and, if you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the muskrats that live along Rock Creek just upstream of Peirce Mill and gnaw on the trees that line the creek’s banks.

Rock Creek

Rock Creek

But sadly, I see a lot of trash floating in Rock Creek, most of which is plastic bags and bottles and aluminum cans. When trash isn’t properly disposed of, it often reaches our lakes, rivers and streams—and ultimately our oceans—where it can severely impact aquatic life. Marine animals can swallow marine debris causing suffocation or starvation. Sea birds have been known to ingest small pieces of plastic as they look like fish eggs, and sea turtles sometimes swallow clear plastic bags, which look like jellyfish.

Rock Creek flows into the Potomac River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary and one of our most important coastal areas. The trash I see in Rock Creek has the potential to affect water quality in the Bay miles downstream.

Properly disposing of waste and recycling is one of the easiest things people can do to help protect our lakes, rivers, streams and oceans. Plastic recyclables can also be turned into new products like jackets, pens and brushes as this infographic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows.

America Recycles Day is November 15 and this year’s theme is “a day of service.” Next time I head to the park, I’m going to collect the bottles and cans I see during my run and put them one of the park’s recycling bins. It’s not going to solve the water quality problems in the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s a way to help.

About the Author: John Senn is the deputy communications director in EPA’s Office of Water and also serves on the agency’s emergency response team.

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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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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We’re Still in the Bay Watershed?

By Tom Damm

We’re getting ready to take our daughter back to college in Pittsburgh next week.  I remember last year when we took the trip, we were heading west along the Pennsylvania Turnpike – one driver switch and nearly three quarters of the way across the state – when we saw this sign: “Leaving the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”

Really?  Way out here?

It reminded us of how vast the Bay’s drainage area is (large parts of six states and all of the District of Columbia) and how actions – good or bad – affecting local waters in Steelers country can impact the Bay itself where the Ravens and Redskins rule.

If you’ve been on the road this summer, you may have seen the Entering/Leaving the Bay watershed signs along major highways in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They were put up in the late 1990s by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory panel, to mark boundaries of the watershed and to help people understand more about Bay restoration.

Bay Watershed Sign

Bay Watershed Sign

For everyone but the driver, take a close look at the signs as you ride by.  They’re original works of art reflecting symbols of the Bay watershed’s bounty – fish, wildlife, recreational opportunities, and clean water.  Each one is designed a little differently, depicting iconic species and activities recommended by the local areas.  The western Maryland sign on I-68 between Frostburg and Grantsville, for instance, features brook trout, river rafters and a black bear.

You’ll see the signs as far east as I-76 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and as far south as I-81 north of Roanoke, Virginia.

In only a few words, these signs convey some big messages, namely that efforts to restore the Bay are also benefitting local waters and local economies, and that the activities of everyone, everywhere in the 64,000-square-mile watershed make a difference in water quality – for the Bay and for the 100,000 or so creeks, streams and rivers that feed it.

Have you seen watershed signs for the Bay (or other watersheds) in your travels this summer?

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

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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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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