Farming in Berks yields cash, crops… and challenges to water quality

Part I

Water, water, everywhere, but is it safe to drink?

Several years ago, Berks County Community Foundation launched Berks Vital Signs, a website that provides data about our community. The site is updated as new data is available, providing a way for civic leaders and residents to track progress on key indicators of community vitality.

Earlier this year, the Community Foundation added a new component to Berks Vital Signs by asking journalists to dig a bit deeper into some key issues that impact the quality of life here. The latest report, which will be released over the coming days, looks at how we use and care for water in Berks County. It answers important questions - like where water comes from when residents turn on their taps - and highlights important challenges and opportunities we have when it comes to protecting the health of our waterways and, ultimately, our drinking water and the environment as a whole.

We’re fortunate to live in the Mid-Atlantic region, where water is generally abundant and droughts tend to be short-lived compared to areas in the western part of the nation. Nevertheless, it’s up to all of us to ensure that the water supply remains plentiful and safe for drinking, for wildlife, and for the health of future generations.

After you read these articles, you may wonder what you can do to make a difference.

One of the best things we all can do is support efforts to ensure our water is clean and safe. That may mean donating to organizations that have the expertise to protect and repair our local streams, rivers, and lakes. It may mean really reading the annual report that water authorities are required to send to those on a public water supply, and talking to local politicians if the numbers show cause for concern. It certainly means looking at our own water usage and habits, including thinking about how and where the chemicals we use in our day-to-day lives – lawn fertilizer, ice melt, medicine – get applied and discarded.

There are many regulations in place to help protect our watersheds. It’s up to all of us to make sure they are followed and improved upon as our circumstances change.


By Anthony Orozco
Journalist for Berks Vital Signs

November 4, 2019 -- Farming is a part of the local identity and an economic boon to Berks, but it also presents challenges to water resources.

 All of the fertilizer, nutrients and waste found on those farms greatly affect the watershed sources of community water systems. A recent report found that dumping 55-gallon drums of industrial waste on a farm in Hereford Township decades ago has cost more than $70 million to clean up and that decontamination efforts of drinking water are ongoing today.

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection identified 332 miles of rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and tributaries in Berks as “impaired.” That is nearly a quarter of all surface water in the county.

Being impaired means the surface waters do not meet quality requirements for the designated use, such as recreation, drinking, or aquatic habitat.

Berks Nature’s annual State of the Environment reports show several signs of improvement in Berks’ water over the past 10 years, but agriculture and storm water runoff remain the main cause of impairment. Nearly 77 percent of those miles identified as impaired by the DEP are attributed to agriculture, much of which is caused by the use of fertilizer, pesticides and livestock. 

Kim Murphy, president of Berks Nature, said she believes the true mileage of impaired streams is less than DEP reports. Some of those improvements can be credited to concerted group efforts, such as the one seen on Peter Zettlemoyer’s farms in Albany Township. 

The improvements consisted of best management practices and nutrient management plans for the 450 acres farmed by Zettlemoyer, according to Berks Nature senior ecologist Lawrence E. Lloyd. 

The project included redirecting rainwater runoff, adding new roofs and concrete floors to the farms’ cow barnyards, building manure storage sheds, and improving fencing to keep cows out of a creek that flows through the farms.

The total cost of the improvements was around $250,000, according to Zettlemoyer and Lloyd. With the exception of a $5,000 waterline extension, Zettlemoyer did not have to pay for the project as the result of U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resource Conservation Service program funding and cost share, which was obtained through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Berks Watershed Restoration Fund, according to Lloyd.

Lloyd also said the Reading Area Water Authority – through the Berks Watershed Restoration Fund – contributed because the creek on Zettlemoyer’s farms feeds into Maiden Creek, which in turn flows into Lake Ontelaunee, a source of drinking water for more than 125,000 people in the Reading area. 


Photos courtesy of Reading Area Water Authority

Those sources and additional grant funding programs like DEP’s Growing Greener and in-kind outreach and engineering services from Berks Nature, the National Resource Conservation Service, the Schuylkill Action Network, the Berks County Conservation District and the Berks County Department of Agriculture have provided millions of dollars in improvements and assistance to farmers like Zettlemoyer.

Tami Shimp, Berks Nature’s vice president of development and community relations, said her organization has not been very successful reaching and educating residents and farmers through town hall meetings. The most effective strategy is making face-to-face, interpersonal connections with key people in the community, according to Shimp. 

“Personal relationships are the best way to build our pipeline,” Shimp said.

Zettlemoyer had heard good things from other farmers near him who had positive experiences with grant-funded upgrades. 

Zettlemoyer noted he would do the renovation project again and thanked Lloyd for helping him during the process. But Zettlemoyer said many of his fellow farmers are hesitant to work with government agencies or other outsiders. 

“I have neighbors upstream and downstream who don’t want to work with the government,” Zettlemoyer said. “They’re not doing the best management (practices), so I’m not sure how much good I am doing.”

Lloyd said the installation of agricultural best management practices on hundreds of Berks County farms has served as a demonstration of sustainable food and water supplies. He added that farmer participation has been and is robust.

Protecting local waters

Nonprofits, government agencies and other groups have joined forces in many ways to protect regional watersheds.

A “watershed” is an area that channels all surface water and groundwater into collection points such as rivers, lakes, and streams. There are 13 state-designated watersheds in Berks County. Those 13 watersheds are located within larger geographic watersheds.  

Much of Berks is located in the Schuylkill River watershed and what is known by the Academy of Natural Sciences as the “Middle Schuylkill Cluster.” A Southern portion of Berks is located in the “Schuylkill Highlands Cluster.” 

Combined, both clusters make up the drinking water source for more than 2,350,000 people in Berks and the Philadelphia metro area downstream. They are part of the Delaware River Basin, which provides drinking water for 15 million people in four states, according to the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.  

The watershed initiative is a collaboration of 65 nongovernmental organizations working in unison to protect the Delaware River and its tributaries. It specializes in the scientific monitoring of the watershed, creating data-informed baselines and setting conservation goals. Most notably, the initiative brings conservation and environmental entities into the fold.

In addition to the Schuylkill/Delaware watershed, portions of Berks are in the Susquehanna River/Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Locally, Berks Nature has been reporting the conditions of the county’s watersheds and other natural resources for the past 10 years. It also acts as a hub for a number of watershed associations in the county and is heavily involved in educational and advocacy programs for local water.  

On the county government level, Berks County Emergency Management sends mandated reports of potential contaminant spill incidents to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which in turn alerts local water suppliers through the Pennsylvania Emergency Incident Reporting System

Beyond his role as executive director of Western Berks Water Authority, Leonard “Chip” Bilger II is also a knowledgeable resource and an active player in water management. Bilger is chairman of the Berks County Water and Sewer Association, which provides members with information and updates about water regulations, laws and trainings.  

Bilger is also the chairman of the American Water Works Association’s Southeast Pennsylvania district, which provides conferences, training and legal help to its members. He is also a member of the state DEP Small Water Systems Technical Assistance Center advisory board. 

In the private sector, the Wyomissing-based engineering firm SSM Group is contracted with the state to create source water protection plans for water suppliers across the commonwealth. 

Lyn O’Hare, a senior water resources specialist with SSM, said the level of connectivity and cooperation between organizations is a fairly recent phenomenon. 

“In the past, community water systems did their thing; Storm water was its own thing,” O’Hare said. “Now, we work as a group and what everyone is trying to do is educate people that all these waters are connected.”

The next story in this series examines the threats to local water, which abound.

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