Something was amiss in “God’s Country.” In the early 1990s, fishermen in Northern Pennsylvania noticed that the clear water in some of Potter County’s trout streams was turning murky.
While members of the God’s Country Chapter of Pennsylvania Trout began looking elsewhere for fish, one of the state group’s leaders, James “Bud” Byron, investigated. The pollution, he soon concluded, wasn’t coming from the end of a pipe — it was from long-established dirt roads, which were literally shedding into the stream, clouding the water with sediment.
Byron collected water samples in a bottle. He determined that the sediment level far exceeded what the state would allow in discharges from a mining operation. So why, he asked, should it be allowed from a road?
He began taking a bottle of sediment-laden water to meetings and shaking it up so state officials in Harrisburg could get a first-hand look at the problem.
“I think early on, people were not giving this much consideration,” said David Spotts, of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “But Bud was pretty persistent.”
Although Byron died in 1995, his concerns directly led to a statewide study of the issue and to a commitment by the state General Assembly to spend millions of dollars a year, mostly in grants to local governments, to fix the problem.
Statewide, dirt roads are not the leading cause of sediment to waterways. But the roughly 25,000 miles of public dirt and gravel roads do pose a particular threat to some of the state’s best waterways. That’s because the cleanest streams are often in the most rural areas — and that’s where the dirt roads are. “We have a lot of township dirt and gravel roads adjacent to high quality and exceptional value trout waters,” Spotts said. “The two just kind of mesh together.”
In some cases, roads run right next to streams and are deteriorating straight into the water. In other cases, high volumes of runoff gush off the road, digging dirt out at the end of a culvert as effectively as a fire hose, sending sediment downhill and — ultimately — into the stream. In other cases, water simply follows long, downhill grades which, at the bottom, inevitably end at a stream crossing.
Once in the stream, sediment has a wide range of impacts. It reduces the population of aquatic insects, covers rocks and solid surfaces, fills the cracks of rocks and even — if the water stays cloudy for long — reduces algae production. While any stream can suffer ill effects from sediment runoff, trout streams are particularly vulnerable because trout are so picky about water quality.
Sediment entering those small streams work their way downstream, ultimately ending up in the Chesapeake Bay, where they block light to underwater grass beds and smother bottom habitat areas used by oysters, clams and other species.
To many, the solution may seem simple: Pavement. But dirt roads are often ideal for the types of traffic they handle: low volumes, but also heavy equipment such as logging trucks or farm equipment, which can deliver a pounding to pavement.
The goal, therefore, was never to try to pave the way out of the problem, but to find ways to better maintain existing roads. To do that, the state established a task force in 1993 consisting of scientists, sportsmen, government officials and others, to tackle the problem.
One of their first tasks was to figure out how bad the problem was. The state would never have had the money to send crews out and drive every dirt road and walk the streams, looking for evidence of damage. Instead, the task force enlisted a corps of volunteers, largely from Pennsylvania Trout, to do the job. “The people who went out knew streams because, by in large, they were trout fishermen,” said Woody Colbert, of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Environmental Quality.
Carrying 8-by-10-inch cards on which to log information, teams visited specific streams during low water conditions. Looking at the banks, they could occasionally spot little “deltas” of sediment coming from the shoreline. “All you see is a little bit from when the rain stopped,” said Ed Bellis, of Pennsylvania Trout, and a member of the task force. “This is just what has been left after the last runoff event. You really have to multiply it by several hundred times to realize the effect. So I think it is a severe problem.”
While they identified problem areas, others searched for solutions. Sometimes, that can be a matter of clearing out and repairing culverts. In other cases, it means occasionally diverting runoff on long grades into the woods.
A major effort was also aimed at testing various surface treatments which bind the soil and gravel on the surface together so it stays put. A popular one is crushed limestone. “As it breaks down into fine particles, it tends to knit the surface together just from moisture action,” said Dean Arnold, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who is on the task force. “Also, you get a side benefit because the water coming off is quite alkaline. In Pennsylvania, if a stream doesn’t get acid mine drainage, it gets acid rain.”
Also getting attention are binding agents that can be sprayed on the road. Some are petroleum-based, others are made out of soybean oil or other materials. Up for future examination are recycled materials, such as chopped up tires and broken glass.
Those solutions can be implemented thanks to legislation passed in 1997 that commits $4 million a year to townships and $1 million a year to the state Bureau of Forestry to improve dirt roads and fix problems — the ultimate payoff for an effort that began with Byron shaking up a bottle of dirty water.
The funding program is administered by the State Conservation Commission, but before anyone can get the money, local road maintenance personnel must attend a two-day educational program. The idea is to get people to look at roads differently — not to see them merely as ribbons that run through forests or farmlands, but as part of the surrounding environment. After all, the runoff isn’t happening because anyone wanted sediment to go into the stream — it happened primarily because no one really thought to look at it. And a simple shift of a hand while operating a grader can make the difference between mud going directly into — or away from — a stream.
“Very few of these fellows that are driving the grader have ever had it pointed out what the ecological effects of different actions on their part might be,” Arnold said. “When you do, they’re really interested and willing to change.”
After the training, townships can apply for grants to address local problems. They have wide discretion about what to do, as long as they give priority to previously identified “trouble spots” and direct efforts at roads affecting “exceptional value” or “high quality” waters. After the first several years, the program will expand to other streams. Special “Quality Assurance Boards” established by County Conservation Districts administer the program locally, and have the responsibility of ensuring the work is done in an environmentally sound manner.
The training has been popular, Colbert said. More than 800 people attended the first session, which took place this spring, and a new round of workshops recently began. Of the more than 300 townships invited for the first round of grants, all but two sent representatives. As a result of the training, more people, like Byron, are starting to see the link between dirt roads and stream quality.
“In the past, we never did much with dirt and gravel roads,” said Ernie Turner, manager of the Franklin County Conservation District. “It was something that slipped past as far as even being something to look at. People were just used to the fact that when it rained, mud would run off the gravel roads. And that was just the way it was.”
But after going through the training, the district is administering several projects within the county — most of which ultimately drains into the Potomac — including a two-mile stretch of dirt road that parallels a stream. Improvements in many cases are simple, such as adding new seeding along the road, regrading, installing culverts to control runoff, and so on.
“I think it’s something that will be very worthwhile,” Turner said. “It’s something that, as we looked into it, we saw there was a problem here.”