In 1945, engineers tasked with bringing clean drinking water to suburban Philadelphia discovered Octoraro Creek nestled in Amish farm country around 40 miles away and deemed it ideal to build the water treatment plant of the future.

But the pastoral landscape that sealed the deal for the Chester Water Authority 70 years ago has now become part of the problem. Nitrates from farm fertilizer seep into the groundwater and get into the creek, ultimately reaching the reservoir built to supply the treatment plant.

At high enough levels, nitrate in drinking water can cause “blue baby syndrome” in infants, a potentially fatal condition. Some studies also suggest a link between drinking nitrate-laden water and cancer in adults, birth defects and heart attacks. So now, the authority that tapped the Octoraro because of pollution on its home river, the Delaware, has to turn to a third river to dilute the nitrate contamination enough to make the water safe to drink.

The authority, which has not made the costly investment in treatment equipment to remove nitrates, now blends its Octoraro supply with water piped in from the Susquehanna River, 10 miles away. It can cost the plant between $30,000 and $120,000 a month to blend, said Gordon Miller, the water authority’s operations supervisor. But if they didn’t do it, he said, they wouldn’t be in business.

“Our ace in the hole is the Susquehanna,” Miller said. “We can dilute and blend down. And we do when we see higher nitrates, in droughts and on frozen ground.”

While much of the efforts in the Chesapeake cleanup have focused on improving water quality to sustain fish and other aquatic creatures, in some cases human health is also at stake.

Nitrates from farm fertilizers and animal wastes can foul drinking water via runoff into streams or by seeping down through the soil into groundwater. Because groundwater moves so slowly, the contaminants can remain there for decades, posing risks to anyone who drinks from a private or community well.

Nitrate is a common contaminant in groundwater and surface water nationwide, and a particular problem in rural areas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. A 2004 USGS report noted that nitrate concentrations in groundwater on the heavily farmed Delmarva Peninsula were among the highest in the nation.

Last year, in the heart of another heavily agricultural region, the Des Moines Water Works sued three rural Iowa counties, alleging that nitrates drained from the region’s farm fields were contaminating the Raccoon River, the state capital’s water supply. The utility said in April that it had to spend $1.5 million in 2015 to run its nitrate-removal equipment for a record 177 days. The waterworks is asking a court to make the rural counties to both take responsibility for the pollution and pay damages to compensate for the cost of that treatment. The case is expected to go to court in the summer 2017. Many water authority officials, including Chester’s, are monitoring developments there. They can’t afford not to: Their plant and the 600-acre reservoir serve more than 200,000 customers in 30 municipalities across Chester and Delaware counties.

Tapping into the Susquehanna

Nitrate levels in raw water drawn from the Octoraro have never exceeded the safe drinking water limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But they have been inching closer to it, according to utility officials. In the 1970s, the authority built a pipeline from the Susquehanna to its Nottingham treatment plant as a hedge against drought, a backup source if the Octoraro ran dry. But in the last 10 years, the authority has increasingly tapped the Susquehanna to improve the quality of its drinking water, not its quantity. Bimonthly monitoring over the last two decades has tracked a 12 percent increase in nitrate levels in raw water from the Octoraro, according to Sharon Fillmann, the authority’s chief of treatment and pumping.

The EPA’s safe drinking water limit for nitrates is 10 milligrams per liter. Seventy percent of the samples taken from the West Branch of the Octoraro have exceeded 9 mg/L, according to authority monitoring data, as have 30 percent of the samples drawn from the creek’s East Branch.

The authority begins mixing Susquehanna water with the Octoraro supply when nitrate concentrations reach 9 mg/L, just short of the maximum contaminant level.

Nitrate levels vary with the weather. The Octoraro suffers when it’s dry because of increased nitrates in the groundwater. But it also suffers when it’s wet because of increased runoff from fertilizer. And it’s even worse when municipalities run out of road salt and use fertilizer to treat frozen roads.

Thus far, Fillmann said, they have not had to raise water rates to pay for the increased dilution and pumping from the Susquehanna. But in 2007 and again last year, she said, severe runoff during spring thaws forced the authority to bypass its reservoir and draw water exclusively from its backup source, the Susquehanna. The plant can dilute the nitrate, but it is not the only issue with the Octoraro. Other pollutants enter the closed reservoir system too, among them disinfection byproducts, ammonia from fertilizers, and organic carbon. These, Fillmann said, render the Octoraro “virtually unusable,” sometimes for long stretches, sending operators to the Susquehanna pumps.

Drinking-water system operators’ failure to be vigilant can have tragic consequences. In 2015, news broke that children in Flint, MI had been poisoned by lead in the water they drank because state and local officials failed to treat their aging lead-pipe system with corrosion-inhibiting agents. And in the worst water-borne disease outbreak in U.S. history, 400,000 people fell ill in Milwaukee in 1993 — and 69 people with compromised immune systems died — after the water system there became contaminated with the chlorine-resistant parasite Cryptosporidium. That episode prompted water systems everywhere to invest in upgrading their infrastructure, monitoring and treatment.

Nutrients normally are not such an acute health threat. Still, Pennsylvania has declared the Octoraro impaired for nutrient levels. And Chester Water Authority officials say they want to avoid Des Moines’ predicament — either in being forced to invest in pricey nitrate filtration or in suing their neighbors to help cover the costs.

They’re hoping instead that a $798,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will help reduce the Octoraro’s problems with nitrates and other farm pollutants. Half of the funds will pay for more runoff-reducing best management practices, or BMPs, on farms, and the other half will pay for monitoring to identify which practices are working.

The authority is working in partnership with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, local conservation districts and the volunteer-led Octoraro Watershed Association.

“If you can get enough of the agricultural community to do the BMPS, then yes, we could expect to see decreases (in nitrate),” Fillmann said. “But it could take 10 to 35 years to see changes to the groundwater in the reservoir.”

Better barnyard practices needed

Still, the reservoir’s water quality might show at least some improvement more quickly if farmers adopt more runoff-controlling practices such as not spreading manure on frozen ground or keeping animals out of streams. When farmers spread manure on fields in the winter, Fillmann and Miller said, they can smell it in the water being piped into the plant.

Farmers need to practice better barnyard management, reducing the number of animals kept in a confined space, said Donna Morelli, Pennsylvania director for the Alliance. They also need to build more manure storage so they won’t need to spread it on frozen ground, she added, and they need to fence livestock away from waterways. Planting more trees along river and streams would help soak up fertilizer nutrients as well.

“No matter what you do in life, you don’t want to drink polluted water,” Morelli said. “We have such a good snapshot of where the best management practices need to go, who needs to be talked to and who is willing to do them that it was a no brainer to build the capacity with this grant.”

The Octoraro Watershed Association has been trying for years to get more pollution-preventing practices on the watershed’s 1,600 farms. But about 70 percent of them are small, Plain Sect operations. Plain Sect includes Amish, Old Order Mennonite and other sects with roots in the Anabaptist faith that favor simple living and plain dress and eschew modern conveniences and dealings with the government.

Plain Sect farmers have been reluctant to take money from government entities for pollution-control practices, but they have become more willing to accept grants to install practices from nonprofits like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Alliance. Increasing that willingness has been more scrutiny such as an unannounced EPA inspection in 2009 of Watson’s Run, a largely Plain Sect watershed near the Octoraro in Lancaster County, where federal officials found multiple pollution violations. The government can’t force Plain Sect farmers to take the money, but the prospect of being fined for polluting might have changed some minds, and remedies like manure storage lagoons can be expensive.

“Watson’s Run kind of stirred some of the farmers up,” said Mel Eby, whose 80-acre Gordonville dairy farm drains into Pequea Creek about a mile from the Watson Run watershed. Not long after the sting, Eby noticed that his Amish neighbor had contractors install an enclosed lagoon for his dairy manure. A longtime devotee of cover crops, Eby said he decided two years ago to put in stream bank fencing, two crossings for his cows and trees along 40 feet of the waterway. Government grants covered the entire cost, he said.

“I talked to my son about it, and we knew it was going to get stricter and stricter, and so we did it before it was actually required,” Eby said. If other farmers can get financial help, he predicted, they’ll put in similar pollution-preventing measures.

Recently, Penn State University surveyed 6,782 farmers to find out what best management practices they’d put on their farms, and then inspected 700, or 10 percent, to verify the results. Though state officials don’t yet know how many Plain Sect farmers responded and could not break out how many were in the Octoraro watershed, they said they intend to make sure money and technical help reaches the Plain Sect communities.

“The Plain Sect community is a different area of farming, so we are figuring out what are the more effective strategies,” said Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “We definitely need to be thoughtful about that as we move forward.”

The Plain Sect community is part of a larger problem in Pennsylvania, which is lagging far behind the other states in its Bay cleanup goals, particularly for nitrogen and sediment. Agriculture is a big driver of that problem, and as a result, federal and state officials announced in October a one-time infusion of $28 million in additional funding aimed at reducing farm runoff.

Small-scale agriculture has always been challenging to control, particularly in Pennsylvania, which feeds into the Chesapeake but whose residents can’t see it. The Clean Water Act directly regulates pollution coming off farms with livestock herds or flocks that are large enough to be classified as a concentrated animal feeding operation. But most of the state’s 58,000 farms don’t meet the CAFO definition, state officials said. All of the farms need manure management plans, but until lately, they have not been inspected to see if they’re complying. The state also has a Clean Streams law that prohibits discharging pollution into waterways, but nitrates can seep into groundwater and contaminate it slowly, which is more difficult to detect.

Morelli and other partners in the Octoraro effort have identified nine farms to help put in pollution controlling practices. Their efforts, the grant application predicts, will keep 285,488 pounds of nitrogen, 9,305 pounds of phosphorus, and 8,172,082 pounds of sediment out of local streams. Those farmers will in turn be promoted as “water quality champions” who can try to get their neighbors to put in the same practices.

The ‘Amish Whisperer’

Morelli said that she believes a key to the effort’s success is the man she calls the “Amish whisperer.” Pat Fasano, the project coordinator with the Octoraro Watershed Association and a forester and biologist by training, has been working with Plain Sect farmers since 2001. He also worked at the Chester Water Authority in the 1990s, so he understands its perspective.

“They’re farmers,” Fasano said. “The reason that they are farmers is that they like to be left alone and do things the way they think they ought to be done. They also feel that they have made improvements, which is very true — without being regulated.”

Many farmers find it a pain to develop and follow the required nutrient management plans, and they consider them an invasion of privacy, Fasano said.

“We try to explain to them that we’re trying to help [them], because if [they] don’t adhere to that [they] won’t be able to farm,” he added.

Private wells affected

Some farms may find they have a self-interest in dealing with the issue, Fasano said. Many rely on private wells for drinking water, and those that have been tested are showing high levels of nitrates. At Watson’s Run in 2009, which is 23 miles north of Octoraro Reservoir, the EPA found unsafe nitrate levels in several wells.

Morelli and Fasano also stress that reducing nitrate contamination isn’t just about helping fish, but looking out for fellow churchgoers.

Chester is not the only drinking water utility to bypass a closer source and cross borders for clean water. Still, the Chester-Octoraro situation is “pretty unique,” said Tyler Shenk, supervisor of restoration for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. That’s because of the number of customers the authority serves, the regularity with which it serves them and the amount of agriculture concentrated in the reservoir.

Shenk said the commission, which regulates withdrawals from the Susquehanna, would like more information about what’s in the water and not just how much gets taken.

The grant, he hopes, will allow for better water-quality monitoring so that environmental officials can understand which best management practices are working.

Standing outside the Chester Water Authority plant, pumping machinery humming in the background, it’s easy to see why water engineers chose the spot. A mist coats the reservoir’s calm surface as birds soar across. Autumn leaves paint the landscape shades of auburn and goldenrod. From the hill overlooking the plant, the scene looks like Andrew Wyeth painted it, all whitewashed farmhouses and chrome-colored silos.

Even though she knows what lies underneath the pretty picture, Fillmann admits to enjoying the view, one that most metropolitan water-treatment plants don’t have.

“We are not unique in that we are struggling with agricultural impacts,” Fillmann said. “But we are unique in that we are surrounded by them.”