In 1972, the U.S. Congress passed what is commonly called the Clean Water Act. Fifty years later, the waters of the United States are cleaner than they were when the act was passed — but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the work of purifying the nation’s waterways is far from over.
Lancaster County is one of 43 Pennsylvania counties in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has labeled Lancaster and neighboring York County as the counties that need to do the most to further reduce water pollution for the Chesapeake Bay.
Many pollutants find their way into local waters and ultimately into the bay, but current discussions about pollution generally center on high levels of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus. Too much sediment — soil or other particles that are washed into creeks and streams — will create cloudy water that hinders aquatic life and can carry excess nitrogen and phosphorus into surface waters. High levels of these minerals are detrimental to water quality.
In 1985, Pennsylvania took its first steps to reduce the pollution traveling from its waterways into the Chesapeake Bay, and practices since then have made headway in reducing water pollution. A 2021 report from the DEP shows that the bay is now receiving 2.27 million fewer pounds of phosphorus and 16.24 million fewer pounds of nitrogen from Pennsylvania annually compared to 1985. However, despite the effort and expense that the state has devoted to reducing river pollution, the ambitious goals that the EPA set 13 years ago for Pennsylvania to reach by 2025 are still out of range: the amount of phosphorus reaching the bay each year is still 850,000 pounds higher than the 2025 target, and the amount of nitrogen reaching the bay each year is still 32.5 million pounds higher than the 2025 target. This means that the state has only three more years to double the nitrogen reductions of the past 37 years.
Previous attempts to control water pollution centered on point-source pollution. This refers to reducing the impurities that enter waterways from identifiable sources, such as factories or sewage treatment plants. Today, however, there is an increasing focus on nonpoint-source pollution. NPS pollution is a result of chemicals, such as fertilizers or automotive fluids, and particulates, such as rust or dust from car brakes, that are deposited onto fields or roads and then are carried by stormwater into creeks or streams. Since no single source of pollution can be identified, NPS pollution is much harder to minimize.
Because stormwater is handled on the local level, the DEP has placed increased responsibility on local governments to reach the goals set by the EPA. Throughout the state, many municipalities have systems that collect stormwater and direct it into nearby creeks or streams. These networks of ditches, drains, pipes and basins are referred to as municipal separate storm sewer systems, or MS4s, and there are over 350 of them in the part of Pennsylvania that drains into the Chesapeake Bay.
If a local municipality contains an urbanized area, as determined by the U.S. Census Bureau, that municipality cannot allow its stormwater to discharge into state waterways without a permit from the DEP. As part of the permitting process, the DEP sets specific targets for a local MS4, which must then develop a pollutant reduction plan to meet the targets.
MS4s can choose from a number of listed options to reach their goals. Each option suggested by the DEP has a corresponding percentage of pollutant reduction. For example, a bioswale — a vegetated or mulched channel that contains and directs stormwater runoff — is presumed to reduce nitrogen by 70%, phosphorus by 75% and sediment by 80%.
Manor Township is one of the MS4s in the Chesapeake watershed, and the current permit it holds — from a permit cycle that started in 2018 and will run until 2023 — has more requirements than previous permits. Unlike many townships, which have been compelled to pass the costs of these state-imposed projects onto township residents, Manor has thus far been able to absorb these costs and even set a positive example for other municipalities.
Manor Township was tasked with reducing its sediment load by 80,361 pounds per year, its phosphorus load by 52 pounds per year, and its nitrogen load by 1,326 pounds per year. After looking at the options, the township chose to retrofit several decades-old catch basins, since turning the old basins into bioretention areas would meet the township’s pollution reduction goals.
Mark Harris, the public works director for the township, told The Lancaster Patriot that the decision made sense because they already had nearly all the resources they needed to do the work in-house. The township already owned most of the needed equipment, had its own compost facility, and had employees who were skilled in the necessary areas. The primary cost to the township would be for engineering and surveying.
Before attempting the project on a grand scale, the township renovated a small basin located behind the township building. When the small-scale task proved a success, the real work of remediation began.
The first large scale project was a 2019 retrofit of a basin near Williamsburg Road, which drains into Little Conestoga Creek near Millersville. This basin was installed in the 1980s and had not been maintained. It was covered with weeds and other vegetation and was not effectively managing stormwater. Township employees removed all of the vegetation, then excavated 18 inches of soil from the bottom. They then replaced the soil with a mixture of equal parts sand and compost. After the soil work was completed, grasses were planted. Subsequent tests have shown that large quantities of water can now easily soak into and be filtered by the sand mixture, eliminating much of the sedimentary runoff into the creek.
This project was followed in 2020 by a similar basin retrofit near Monticello Lane. This basin, near the first one, also drains into Little Conestoga Creek, and it was more overgrown than the first: an entire woods had grown up within it, complete with paths and dirt-bike trails. After the township determined that the trees would not help with soil infiltration, they were removed and the basin was reconstructed.
The work on the two basins alone will credit the township with 24,859 pounds of sediment reduction, over 30% of its five-year goal. It is expected that when the township completes its list of projects, it will have met the pollution reduction target for this permit cycle.
New permit requirements will come out next year, and until they are announced the township will not be able to make specific plans to meet them, which limits how much the township can plan ahead in general. Harris pointed out, “If I don’t get the guidance from the state, I don’t know how to attack that problem.”
The main focus for the current permit cycle is sediment reduction, but it is likely that nitrogen and phosphorus will be high on the list for the next cycle. By next year, the township will have used up its basin retrofitting options, so for the new permit the township will need to look into other strategies, like streambank restoration. One likely place to restore streambanks is at the site of a planned development on Bender Mill Road near Little Conestoga Creek. The township is already working with the developer to offset costs and share expertise. Harris explained that they are trying to capture these mitigation features in the development stage rather than waiting to address them afterward.
The quest for pure water continues, and as it does, regulations, restrictions and costs are likely to increase. Thus far, Manor Township has demonstrated an ability to meet regulatory demands without hurting taxpayers, and the township hopes to find creative, low-cost solutions in the years ahead.
Freelance writer Nathan Birx has written articles for The Lancaster Patriot since March 2022. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.