WILLOW STREET, Pa. — A big stream restoration project on Harvey and Yvonne Groff’s farm is all but ready to go.
After an old dam is removed, tons of highly erodible sediment will be hauled away, restoring the natural floodplain that existed before European settlers arrived.
As with so many other on-farm conservation projects, “the only missing piece is funding,” said Ramez Ziadeh, executive deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
That funding could come from Restore Pennsylvania, a major infrastructure plan proposed this spring by Gov. Tom Wolf.
The measure would provide funding for on-farm stream restoration and other flood mitigation tactics, as well as everything from broadband expansion to road improvements.
The plan would be funded by the creation of a severance tax on natural gas, which would bring in about $4.5 billion over the next four years, Ziadeh said during a June 6 event at the Groffs’ Lancaster County farm.
Streams impaired by old dams can be found in many places east of the Mississippi, but “the Mid-Atlantic was the hot spot,” said Ben Uhler, a project manager at LandStudies, an environmental engineering firm.
Colonists and their descendants had dams for milling, irrigating fields, even ice harvesting.
But sediment backed up behind these dams — a small, 2-foot dam can trap a big 2 feet of sediment — and clear-cutting the surrounding timber only accelerated the erosion of sediment into floodplains.
Many of the dams are long gone, but the clogged stream channels they created are still hemorrhaging water-polluting silt today.
Removing this legacy sediment would give a big boost to the state’s water-quality cleanup in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
After legacy sediment is removed, “we see marked improvements almost immediately,” said Jeff Hartranft, a DEP wetland and stream expert.
More to the point of Restore Pennsylvania, restoring natural valley bottoms would also reduce flooding risks.
“The floodplain at that point is going to act like a detention basin,” Ziadeh said. “And what that does, it’s going to slow down the water going downstream, so they’re going to get less flooding downstream.”
The perils of flooding are pretty clear after last year, when record rainfall overtopped stream banks around the state.
One storm in August caused more than $60 million just to transportation infrastructure, according to the governor’s office.
The Groff farm is on Big Spring Run, just upstream from a legacy sediment demonstration project undertaken by Franklin & Marshall College, LandStudies and other partners.
In all, LandStudies has done more than 30 of these projects in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
But removing built-up sediment from almost a mile of stream isn’t cheap.
The stream restoration is expected to cost $700,000 to $800,000, not including the $200,000 in project design and other farm conservation work that has already been funded, said Joellyn Warren, West Lampeter Township’s zoning director.
The township, looking to meet its municipal stormwater regulations, has been working with the Groffs for four years.
Harvey Groff said he isn’t keen on big government programs, but he is comfortable working with the township because it is local and the officials seem interested in keeping farmers around.
Government assistance and nonprofit funding are the only reasons most ag producers are able to do such costly conservation projects.
“We are family farmers. We don’t have the kind of money it takes to do a stream bank project like this,” Groff said.
With a tax on natural gas extraction, the governor hopes, Pennsylvania could have the money to fund this flood-protection project, and plenty of others.
Restore Pennsylvania could fund new riparian buffers, as well as repairs to aging dams and levees.
“We need to kind of rehabilitate those projects, fix them, make them functional,” Ziadeh said.
According to the governor’s office, the new funding could decrease the need for local stormwater fees, which have proved an unpopular strategy in Luzerne and York counties.
Wolf’s sprawling infrastructure plan would also expand high-speed internet, brownfield cleanup, and road maintenance.
That’s a lot to promise for a program that would be funded by a new tax on one industry, said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall Township.
Natural gas producers, Turzai said, already generate their fair share in taxes — $1.7 billion from the state’s natural gas impact fee since 2012, plus billions more in income tax.
“Our infrastructure needs can be funded under existing programs and by the private sector, if only we can remove governmental barriers to those capital and infrastructure investments,” he said.
Along with the $24 million PA Farm Bill, Restore Pennsylvania is one of the most ambitious plans Wolf has announced as he begins his second term.
The Groffs see the floodplain restoration as a complement to their farming activities.
They have a piglet nursery for Country View Family Farms, and they used to pasture cattle in the meadow on the far side of Big Spring Run.
Since he got rid of the cattle, Harvey Groff has noticed that deer have made increasing use of the stream corridor.
And in case Groff decides to bring the cattle back, the restored stream will include a hard-surfaced cattle crossing so the animals won’t erode the banks as they did in the past.
The Groff farm sits along busy U.S. Route 222, so the stream restoration will be highly visible to farmers and other passing motorists.
No matter how the funding is obtained, Warren, the township official, hopes the project will entice other farmers to do conservation work on their own land.
“All these combined projects contribute to the clean water,” she said.Photos by Philip Gruber
Jeff Hartranft of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection points out the floodplain planned for restoration at the Groff farm.
Ramez Ziadeh, executive deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, speaks about the benefits of stream conservation, which could receive funding from the governor’s Restore Pennsylvania plan.
Harvey and Yvonne Groff are looking forward to a stream restoration on their farm.