Keepin’ it clean: County focuses on prevention to maintain high water quality

SUN-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Preserving an abundant supply of clean water is among the priorities identified in the new draft of the county comprehensive plan. It’s important to recreation, such as these boaters on the river.

Lycoming County has great water quality for now, but putting preventative measures in place to oppose possible threats will be cheaper than treating water after-the-fact, according to county Department of Planning and Community Development members.

“Water is the foundation for human health,” said Joshua Billings, environmental planner. “Reliable water service also is needed to foster development and economic growth.”

It goes beyond drinking water. The county’s streams, lakes and the Susquehanna River encourage folks to recreate and build businesses here, too, he said.

Out of about 2,200 stream miles countywide, nearly 1,200 stream miles are dubbed “high quality and exceptional value,” terms used by the state Department of Environmental Protection to denote water quality, Billings said.

Only about 8 percent, or 178, of those stream miles are noted to have impairments, he added. Those impairments could be caused by atmospheric deposition, agricultural activities, small residential runoff or acid mine drainage. The West Branch Susquehanna River also is reportedly impaired with metals, siltation, nutrients, thermal modification (such as runoff heated from traveling over black top) and pathogens, according to the 2016 Pennsylvania Final Integrated Water Quality and Assessment Report.

Other threats such as stormwater, flooding and certain types of land uses also could increase that percentage without proper measures in place.

These threats can be categorized in two ways — point sources and nonpoint sources. Point sources are attributable to a single pollution site whereas nonpoint sources occur from rainfall or snowmelt moving over or through the ground and picking up a variety of contaminants, Billings said.

Main threats to the county’s water sources include stormwater, which picks up soil, debris and contaminants before flowing into the river, lakes and streams throughout the county. It is a nonpoint source when it does this, but can be considered a point source when the flow is concentrated and discharges through structures, he said.

The county put its focus on stormwater management in 2011 when it adopted the county Stormwater Plan to be in compliance with state regulations. The state also has committed to having Municipal Separate Storm Sewer, or MS4, municipalities reduce sediment by 10 percent by 2025 through the implementation of a Chesapeake Bay Pollution Reduction Plan and minimum control measures such as educating the public and good housekeeping in municipal operations.

“A next step could be to develop watershed-specific stormwater plans to better define the amount of stormwater management required to offset continued development,” Billings said, “Almost every major stream in the county has a watershed group.”

Another risk is flooding, which Billings said is “a two-fold concern” to the county.

One, the force of moving water can destroy man-made structures, potentially causing point source pollution, Billings said. Two, the flood waters also pick up contaminants while moving across the land that contribute to pollution.

Implementing stormwater best management practices and increasing forested open space could help with the severity of flooding, Billings said.

Certain land uses also could pose threats to the county’s water, such as natural gas extraction activities, agriculture and on-lot septic systems, he said.

If these threats are not addressed, the county faces such issues as contamination, increasingly complex and expensive treatment, need for new source water and significant penalties associated with non-compliance of regulatory requirements, Billings said.

A 2015 study spearheaded by the county, federal Geological Survey and the state Department of Community and Economic Development showed existing geology and land use influence county groundwater with contaminant levels of arsenic, iron, manganese, total dissolved solids, chloride, bacteria and radon-222 — something many residents don’t realize is naturally occurring in the county’s geology, Billings said.

“There’s no concern at all” about the county’s public water system, which is used by a majority of county residents and businesses, clarified Kim Wheeler, deputy director of planning.

“However, we want to emphasize that people with private wells should have them tested regularly,” she added.

There are no state requirements for construction, maintenance or treatment of private wells, Billings explained.

Beyond the risk to private wells, the county wants to implement more preventative measures not only to avoid contaminating water in the first place, but also because doing so will be cheaper in the long run than treating impaired water, Billings said.

In addition to the suggestions given for dealing with each main threat, the county comprehensive plan suggests three projects geared toward preventing water contamination.

The first is the county Integrated Water Resources Management Initiative, a growing national and statewide initiative that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximize economics and the sustainability of communities’ ecosystems.

It is a comprehensive approach that would build public-private partnerships to help improve and implement protection plans, educate community members, promote best management practices among private well owners and more, Billings said.

Another project is to update the county Stormwater Plan, which should be revised and re-approved a minimum of every five years, he said.

The final project is to support municipal stormwater ordinance review and update processes countywide. Regulations must be reasonable, practical and regularly reviewed and updated to make sure that development is sufficiently being offset with stormwater management controls that are cost effective and consistent with the local watershed stormwater plan, Billings said.

“Clean, high quality water is beneficial to all of its users,” he said. “Allowing the quality or abundance of water to degrade will compromise the quality of life in Lycoming County.”

After the planning department’s presentation, Matt McDermott, chief clerk and director of administration for the county, complimented the work put into the drafted comprehensive plan’s priorities.

“But there’s one thing missing,” he said. “There is incumbent personal responsibility on all people to take care of their property … It’s not just the county’s responsibility, it’s the people’s responsibility as well.”

Final weekly presentation slated

for Thursday; hearing comes next

County Comprehensive Plan presentations held during meetings of the county commissioners at 10 a.m. Thursdays in Executive Plaza, 330 Pine St., are wrapping up after nearly eight weeks.

Each presentation has focused on a separate priority issue with time for questions and comments after. Topics already presented include infrastructure, the economy, fragmentation of local governments, flooding, land use, voluntarism and water quality.

The final topic, effects of drugs and how to combat them, will be presented Thursday.

All eight chapters of the county comprehensive plan draft are available at www.lyco.org/departments/planning-and-community-development. The website allows for public comment and provides an online survey.

A public hearing dedicated to the plan in its entirety will be held April 26 at 10 a.m. in Executive Plaza, followed by a 45-day comment period. Pending comments, the plan is slated to be finalized and approved this summer.

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