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Farm protection up river protects drinking water downstate

HONEY BROOK TWP., PA (May 20, 2014)--With support from the Open Space Institute’s Bayshore-Highlands Fund, the Brandywine Conservancy has acquired a conservation easement that preserves a working farm in the Honey Brook township of Chester County, PA, furthering its initiative to protect the headwaters of the Brandywine Creek. The project’s greatest impact, however, may ultimately be seen some 40 miles away, in Wilmington, Delaware, where city officials have quietly been funding best management practices (BMPs) and now, for the first time, farmland preservation in the name of protecting the city’s drinking water.

“The Bayshore-Highlands Fund was created with projects like this in mind,” said Peter Howell, executive vice president of the Open Space Institute. “The Brandywine Conservancy’s work in Honey Brook is an innovative and thoughtful collaboration that’s both local and regional in its efficacy.”

Since 2009, Wilmington has spent nearly $200,000 funding upstream BMP projects that will protect drinking water for its 71,000-plus residents a state away. The farm just protected by the Brandywine Conservancy represents the first time the city has helped fund an acquisition project – in this case a conservation easement.

Operated by Amish proprietors, the 70-acre farm contains first and second-order tributary streams and prime agricultural soils, and affords the public scenic views of the landscape. Importantly, the easement fills a gap within an area of almost 350 contiguous acres of farmland that are permanently protected. Purchased with grant funds from the Honey Brook Township, Chester County and the city of Wilmington, along with OSI, this project highlights the exciting synergy in several ongoing campaigns to preserve and improve the headwaters of the Brandywine.

Environmental Value

The Honey Brook Township’s Brandywine headwaters are a classic example of a watershed experiencing intense competition for its land and resources. During its peak development period, Chester County land was being consumed at a rate of 5,000 acres per year. Development brought challenges to the watershed, including nonpoint-source pollution from stormwater runoff, forest loss and fragmentation, increased pollutant loads from development, and increased flooding.

Today, preserving farms and rural land uses protects the headwaters region from development-related impacts to surface streams that could threaten the entire watershed. Net improvements to the watershed result in improved water quality in the upper portions of the Brandywine and also reduce water treatment requirements (and costs) at downstream water intakes.

Wilmington, DE

During the time that the Brandywine Conservancy has been focused on land and water protection in Honey Brook, the city of Wilmington recognized the importance of protecting the source of its water supply and developed a nationally recognized Source Water Protection program. A city analysis determined that pollutants generated by headwaters farms in Pennsylvania were a factor in driving up water treatment costs downstream – leading Wilmington policymakers to decide that helping the Brandywine Conservancy preserve farmland and install BMPs in Honey Brook was cost-effective and made sense, even across state lines. The city’s latest contribution went to help fund the purchase of this headwaters easement.

Results

The Brandywine Conservancy has partnered with the Honey Brook Township and Chester County for a decade to achieve agricultural land preservation and assist with the implementation of best management practices (BMPs) to protect and restore the water quality of the Brandywine. Remarkably, almost 20 percent of the Honey Brook Township has now been protected – an almost four-fold increase – within that time. Consistent with the goal of improving the water quality of the Brandywine, the farmers of the newly eased property employ BMPs and have fenced their streams to keep animals out of the water and to allow streamside areas to vegetate naturally.

The Conservancy’s early efforts in Honey Brook were so successful that Chester County dedicated $1 million to support the purchase of development rights from headwaters farms through its Brandywine Headwaters Preservation Program. Funding from that program also contributed to this easement purchase.

William Penn Foundation Initiative

Following up the Bayshore-Highlands Fund, which OSI created with a lead grant from the William Penn Foundation in 2011, the William Penn Foundation announced a $35 million initiative earlier this year to protect and restore clean water throughout the watershed of the Delaware River, the longest un-dammed river in the eastern United States – serving over 15 million people. The Open Space Institute is playing a major role in the initiative as well, and will award $9 million in funding to conservation projects that support exemplary land protection throughout the watershed.

Extending from southeast New York to southern New Jersey, eight clusters in the Delaware Basin were deemed critically important and selected for funding by the initiative. Projects supported by the multi-year initiative will permanently protect more than 30,000 acres, implement more than 40 restoration projects, pilot new incentives for landowners and businesses, provide replicable models for other locations in the watershed, and develop long-term water quality data for the Delaware River watershed at an unprecedented scale.

The Open Space Institute will award capital land protection grants for projects that permanently protect lands critical to water quality and quantity in six of the eight sub-watershed clusters. OSI will also support promising research and modeling efforts to apply watershed science to land protection.

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