Location of the Little Conestoga Watershed
The Little Conestoga Watershed is in the eastern section of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the central-western portion of Lancaster County.
Importance of the Little Conestoga Watershed
The majority of Lancaster residents obtain their drinking water from the Conestoga and Susquehanna Rivers. The Conestoga River Watershed has the highest nutrient concentration of any watershed flowing into the Susquehanna River. Nutrients are detrimental to water quality because they contribute to large amounts of algae, which can use up the available oxygen in the water. Algae also block light to the grasses that help supply oxygen to the water. The Little Conestoga Creek is a tributary of the Conestoga River, and has a watershed area of 65.5 square miles. The upper and lower regions of the Little Conestoga watershed are more than 80 percent agricultural land, a primary contributor of nutrient pollution from animal wastes. The central portion of the watershed is primarily used for commercial and industrial purposes.
Poor water quality in the Little Conestoga Creek directly affects downstream communities. The larger Susquehanna River discharges 19 million gallons of water into the Chesapeake Bay every minute and supplies nearly half of the Chesapeake's fresh water. The Susquehanna River also contributes over 40 percent of the bay's excess nitrogen and phosphorus, much of it derived from the five million tons of livestock manure produced annually in Lancaster County.
High nutrient levels, severe bank erosion, siltation, urban stormwater runoff, and industrial point source pollution have put the Little Conestoga Creek on the List of Impaired Waters by Section 303(d) of the Federal Clean Water Act. A study of the Little Conestoga Creek by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay found waters with nitrate ion levels exceeding those allowable for drinking water. This has had a direct effect on the water quality and aquatic life in the Little Conestoga Creek. The study tested nitrate ion and phosphate ion levels as well as the amount and diversity of insect populations. Water quality in the lower part of the basin, on the West Branch of the Little Conestoga Creek, was found to be the poorest.
Effects of Suburban Sprawl
Suburban sprawl is one of the largest growing environmental problems in Lancaster County today. One of the significant problems of suburban sprawl is the replacement of natural landscapes with impervious surfaces. Impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt do not allow the ground to absorb rainwater. Rainwater flows into tributaries at a faster rate and can cause flooding and severe erosion. The presence of impervious surfaces also allows pollutants and sediment to enter the stream. A large source of pollution to the Little Conestoga Creek stems from the runoff from the Park City Mall. The mall was built without the use of retention basins to catch runoff from the paved parking lots. As a result, water mixed with gasoline, oil and coolant from the underbeds of cars flows directly into the Conestoga Creek.
Ways You Can Help the Little Conestoga
Many farmers in the Little Conestoga Watershed have successfully fenced off tributaries in order to improve the health of their herd. This is accomplished by installing electrical fencing along the stream corridor and leaving cattle crossings at intervals. These crossings are often made of hog slats that allow the stream to flow through them. By fencing off the stream, a riparian buffer is allowed to grow in order to catch eroded material and runoff from the pasture.