DEP, partners celebrate Turtle Creek stream restoration

Apr. 25—LEWISBURG — Local, state and federal officials stood on the banks of Turtle Creek in southeastern Union County on Thursday to celebrate and tour the improvements of the waterway.

Two sections of Turtle Creek watershed have been removed from the federal Clean Water Act impaired waters list through partnerships with at least 10 agencies and organizations. The work was touted as a model for improving other waterways in Pennsylvania and other states.

"This is a really big deal," said Joel Dunn, the president/CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy. "It makes a big turning point for the Chesapeake Bay Conservation movement. This is one farm out of 83,000 farms in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Turtle Creek is one creek of hundreds of thousands of creeks, streams and rivers that flow to the Chesapeake Bay. What's significant is that portions of this stream are no longer impaired. That follows 10 years of restoration effort from the northcentral stream partnership and conservation community, which has proven the power of partnership."

The event took place on the seven-generation farm owned by Mary Beth and Frank Griffith in East Buffalo Township just off Salem Church Road. Agencies represented included the state Departments of Environmental Protection, Agriculture and Conservation and Natural Resources, PA Fish and Boat Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's PA Chesapeake Bay Program, Chesapeake Conservancy, the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and the Union County Conservation District.

Dunn said Pennsylvania is setting an example for states across the watershed, and the model can be deployed as a bay-wide strategy to save local streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

"This is how we win the fight to save the Chesapeake Bay," said Dunn. "Of all the hundreds of press conferences I've attended — some of which I participated in during my 20 years in the Chesapeake Bay — this one on one farm out of 83,000, at one stream out of hundreds of thousands, to celebrate the delisting of two segments, just might prove to be the most crucial press conference that I've ever been to."

24 miles of flowing stream

The 12.7-square-mile Turtle Creek watershed, part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, has 24 miles of flowing stream. It was settled in the 1800s as a farming community, and continues to be a largely agricultural landscape today. Many trees were cut down as 47 percent of the watershed's land was converted to farms and fields. The addition of livestock to the landscape, combined with the elimination of nature's vegetated buffers and filters, has significantly changed the health and structure of Turtle Creek, according to DEP.

Starting in 2013, officials determined the best management practice called stream bank stabilization would help reduce the amount of pasture landowners were losing and help improve Turtle Creek water quality. It was the beginning of a multi-year effort made possible by a group of willing landowners and dedicated agency partners, according to DEP.

The practices include log and rock structures to stabilize streambanks and increase aquatic habitat. These structures direct Turtle Creek's flow and energy back to the center of the stream, reduce erosive pressure on the banks; create habitat and protective cover in the stream for fish and macro-invertebrates; and direct the suspended sediments (soil dissolved in the water) to drop out and deposit behind the structures, which helps the eroded stream banks to slowly rebuild as vegetation grows and roots take hold in the accumulated sediments, according to DEP.

After the structures are installed, the eroded, vertical streambanks are then graded back to a more natural slope, DEP said.

Streambanks stabilized

The streambanks were then stabilized with biodegradable matting and reseeded with native grasses, annuals and perennials, DEP said. In many cases, trees and shrubs are also planted along the stream. Fences are installed to keep livestock away from the restored stream and riparian buffer. Stabilized stream crossings for livestock and farm equipment are created where necessary to provide access to different areas of the farm.

The ongoing Turtle Creek restoration projects have improved water quality and aquatic habitat for fish and the aquatic insects, called macroinvertebrates, that fish feed on, DEP said.

Jessica Shirley, DEP acting secretary, said Turtle Creek shows the importance of the state's investment.

"Investing in local quality is investing in our farms and communities," she said. "Investing in the improvements, restoration and protection of our local waters pays dividends for our community. Investing in stream health leads to vibrant, resilient regions where every community flourishes. Investing in local capacities will ensure this great work will be accomplished for years to come."

A celebration

"This is a real reason to celebrate," said state Sen. Scott Martin, R-13, who is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and Appropriations Committee Chair.

Martin said a clear signal has been sent to farmers that they have support and partnership from the state.

"We need more of this, we need more of the celebrating and talking about it," he said.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23, who is the Pennsylvania Delegation Chair and member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, also provided comments.

"The success we celebrate today is just the start of what we can achieve when we apply funding in a more strategic way and align it with local goals and expertise," he said. "With the new Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program directing funding to agriculturally-impaired waters based on local priorities, and expansion of the Chesapeake Conservancy's data-driven guidance, we are equipping our local partners to push the gas pedal on their clean water efforts."

The stream partnership has continued its ongoing commitment to Turtle Creek with a stream restoration, riparian buffer — plants that help protect the stream habitat — and pollinator habitat project at Turtle Creek Park in East Buffalo Township. The project was recently recognized with the Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence, according to DEP.