Fall Meeting Recap and Next Steps: A Focus on Water Resources

By Carolyn Seibert-Drager, Co-Chair of the South Mountain Partnership Communications Subcommittee

Reflecting the South Mountain Partnership’s (SMP) primary focus over the next two years, the fall meeting agenda was all about the region’s watersheds and the resources available to support and improve them.

Key among the topics at the September 13 meeting was a proposal for a regional mapping tool to help counties implement their required Water Implementation Plans (WIPs), a project that would be steered by the needs of the four counties in the South Mountain Conservation Landscape and launched with seed money from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

One of the most pressing concerns among SMP’s partner organizations is not having sufficient data about existing land use and water quality to move forward in ways that will accomplish their WIPs.

No single partner organization has the resources to either collect that data on its own or secure the funding needed for such an undertaking. With its funds from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, SMP could facilitate this project based on the priorities outlined in each county’s WIP, said Director Katie Hess.

“The most strategic way [to move forward] is to better align the resources of our partner organizations,” Hess said. “Each one working independently won’t be able to achieve the clean water results that we can by cooperating strategically.”

Katie Walker, geospatial analyst with the Chesapeake Conservancy, said the conservancy would be interested in helping SMP organizations with their data needs. Through its Land Cover Data Project, the conservancy has developed one-meter resolution land cover data for approximately 100,000 square miles of land in and around the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The data were most recently updated in 2017–18, and will be again in 2021–22, she said.

The conservancy’s goal for the project is to help municipalities, nonprofit organizations, private landowners and others work together on “precision restoration” within the watershed — “getting the right practices in the right places on the right scale,” Walker said.

“A parcel of land is not solitary; it is connected upstream and it is connected downstream,” she added. “You need the surrounding context to best understand what we find in the data. That’s not only where the water is, but also where the farmland is, where the low vegetation is, where the forests are.”

Partner organization representatives and Hess outlined challenges that may prevent successful implementation of WIPs during the meeting:
• The lack of both an overall conservation strategy for the region and the capacity to develop such a strategy
• Insufficient administrative capacity, such as for project planning, grant writing and fulfilling grant reporting requirements
• The lack of technical project planning capacity
• The need for improved communications, such as the ability to get important information to farmers and other landowners so they are more likely to participate in conservation projects
• The need to advocate for more flexibility and other changes in how grant processes work, particularly at the state level, to make it easier for Conservation Districts and smaller organizations to successfully apply for funding

To ensure that the discussion did not end at the Fall Partnership Meeting, SMP recently coordinated a meeting to gather more feedback from county WIP teams about the use of the grant funding so that it can be used for the greatest good of the region. SMP coordinated and facilitated the meeting, which drew representatives from Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, and York county WIP teams, the PA Department of Environmental Protection, the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Chesapeake Conservancy, and the PA Organization of Watersheds and Rivers (POWR). Attendees recommended that the funding be used to create additional data layers, customized to the needs of WIP teams, to be integrated into water quality tools that they are already using and/or are planning to use.

Water quality issues in the region will continue to be a focus for SMP work in 2020, including a series of three workshops for the annual South Mountain Speaker Series, among other efforts.