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Pennsylvania’s ‘Discovery Watersheds’

Posted: December 20, 2010

‘Discovery Watersheds’ are small watersheds in which resources are targeted to enhance conservation efforts and ultimately solve problems related to agricultural nonpoint pollution.
Conewago Creek Watershed. Map by Jennifer Fetter

Conewago Creek Watershed. Map by Jennifer Fetter

The Discovery Watershed Approach

This concept, developed and practiced by Dr. Peter Nowak from the University of Wisconsin, includes four components:

  • First, watersheds need to be of a scale that allows for landowner connection and ownership of the landscape. Small watersheds provide the opportunity to work with landowners on a scale that matters to them personally.
  • Second, conservation efforts should be targeted toward the portions of the watershed with the highest likelihood of contributing to the water quality problem. Appropriate data tools need to be developed and made available to effectively identify these areas and the conservation practices needed to minimize the degradation potential.
  • Third, incentives and rewards need to be put in place to recognize and encourage landowners who experiment and innovate with ways to solve environmental problems on their landscape. 
  • Fourth, watershed data tools and monitoring systems need to be in place to provide feedback to local conservation efforts but more importantly, to land managers, to help them adapt their management to identified changes in water quality indicators. Monitoring of water quality changes in a small watershed are more likely to be able to isolate the effects of conservation practices from other activities.  Monitoring systems in small watersheds can assess impacts of conservation efforts and return this information to policymakers and landowners directly to allow for adaptive management on the landscape.

The Conewago Creek Conservation Initiative: Pennsylvania’s First Discovery Watershed

The Conewago Creek Conservation Initiative, which was initially funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is Pennsylvania’s version of this ‘Discovery Watershed’ approach. The Conewago Creek Watershed is a 52 square mile watershed in three counties (Dauphin, Lebanon and Lancaster), located southeast of Harrisburg. Water quality in the watershed is impaired by excess nutrient and sediment loads, mostly related to agricultural activities. Partners in the project are working together to identify resources and coordinate efforts to target conservation efforts in the watershed community. This project is grass-roots, meaning that the processes underway are driven by the local community and supported by the interests and entities that are working at the local-, regional-, state and federal levels towards improved conservation of land and water.

Three main groups are targeted in this effort: agricultural land owners, non-agricultural residents, and municipal officials. For each group, efforts are focused initially on identifying existing practices on the landscape and then targeting members of each group with educational, technical, and financial assistance to move one step forward with conservation practices and structures appropriate for their landscape and management context. In addition, a small-watershed monitoring plan is being developed and tested in the watershed to identify the impacts of conservation practices on water quality.  

What does this mean for my watershed

The goal of the Pennsylvania Discovery Watershed program is to take lessons learned about the feasibility of these ideas and apply them to other watersheds throughout the commonwealth. While initially we will start with lessons learned in the Conewago, we are learning every day about innovations that are effectively addressing water quality problems across the state. We will share these lessons as well, along with information that will help you decide how well the lessons will transfer to your watershed. Stay tuned for more information about effective strategies, tools, and innovations for improving Pennsylvania’s water quality.

Prepared by Kathryn Brasier, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology; and Kristen Saacke-Blunk,Senior Extension Associate & Director Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center