At first glance, it's hard to imagine, while scrambling though a wooded New York hillside, out of sight of any stream, that the Chesapeake Bay starts here. But Jim Curatolo sees it very clearly.

There is no stream, but Curatolo is focused on an old, rutted logging trail. All winter, the snow that accumulates on the slope absorbs nitrogen oxides as the pollutant falls from the sky. When spring rains melt the winter snowpack, these ruts funnel runoff down the slope and into Sulfur Spring Creek as effectively as a concrete gutter.

But not any more.

Curatolo and his colleagues at the Upper Susquehanna Coalition have built a dozen small vernal ponds in the rutted two-track. The ponds intercept the snowmelt before it reaches the stream which, in turn, feeds the flood-prone Catatonk Creek.

"When you follow a drop of water from the headwaters, how long it takes to reach the creek is the critical thing," Curatolo said. "What we want to do is maximize the time of travel."

His goal is to reduce local flooding-the New York portion of the Chesapeake watershed is one of the most flood-prone regions of the country.

Curatolo is watershed coordinator for the coalition, an organization consisting of all of the county soil and water conservation districts in New York Bay part of the watershed as well as three Pennsylvania counties on the state border.

In many ways, Curatolo's job seems like that of the Dutch boy holding his finger in the dike. As he drives through the northernmost parts of the Bay drainage, he tells of plans to build wetlands and forest buffers and other traps that will slow or prevent water from heading downstream.

Holding back the water, and the nutrients it carries, also helps the Bay. So Curatolo is also one of the chief architects of the runoff control components of New York's tributary strategy-the state's plan for meeting its Chesapeake Bay nutrient and sediment reduction goals.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation this fall released a 92-page, $500 million tributary strategy to meet New York's portion of the Bay's goals.

But Curatolo doesn't talk much about the Bay, its chronic summertime dead zones or algae-strained water as he goes about his work. "You ask anyone if they've ever been to the Chesapeake Bay..." Curatolo said, shaking his head. "It's like going to the moon. Flooding is what people worry about."

New York and two other "headwater" jurisdictions-Delaware and West Virginia-agreed to join Bay nutrient and sediment reduction efforts in 2000. That action was prompted by the fact that a legally binding cleanup would be required for the entire watershed if the Chesapeake does not meet water quality standards by 2010.

But nowhere is the Bay more distant than New York. Rising and ebbing Chesapeake tides actually reach into Delaware's rivers. Parts of West Virginia are becoming the exurbs for the rapidly developing suburbs of Washington, D.C.

In the upper Susquehanna Basin, though, road signs point to New York City, Syracuse, Albany or Utica.

The New York portion of the watershed includes more than 6,250 square miles-an area about two-thirds the size of Maryland.

Forest covers about 70 percent of the landscape and the amount of forest and meadows is slowly rising. About 3,500 farms, nearly half of which are dairies, cover about a quarter of the watershed.

It makes up about 10 percent of the Bay drainage, but has only 4 percent of its population: 650,000 people. And that number is shrinking. Urban areas have lost a fifth of their population since the mid-1980s. About 22 percent of the population that remains in the watershed is below the poverty line.

Most people have no idea they live in the Chesapeake basin, said Steve Lorraine, who heads the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, which includes the northernmost reaches of the Chesapeake Bay watershed-fully 444 miles upstream of the Bay.

"I didn't, either, until I started working here," added Lorraine, whose office is about an hour's drive from Lake Ontario and six hours from the Chesapeake.

Although the Bay goals are what drives the tributary strategy, New York waterways stand to benefit as well. Many small lakes in the region are eutrophic and suffer from excessive weed growth, the result of excess nutrients. Some areas have concerns about high levels of nitrogen in groundwater.

"It's one of those things; clean water is good for everyone," Lorraine said.

The price tag for farmers could be hefty. The tributary strategy calls for a suite of agricultural actions that could cost $240 million to fully implement.

Upgrading 28 major wastewater treatment plants to meet the nitrogen and phosphorus goals is expected to cost an additional $200 million.

Nonetheless, officials say the plan could be implemented, given enough time and money. That differs from other state tributary strategies where officials acknowledge their plans often call for unrealistically high implementation levels for some nutrient control practices.

In New York, the coalition-which wrote the agricultural section of the strategy-consulted with each of the county conservation districts, where officials estimated the limits of what they could do, given adequate resources.

"It was grounded in reality," Curatolo said. "The county soil and water district manger who works in Chenango County has the best feel of anybody for what he really can get done, regardless of the money. He knows where he can do things, and where he can't."

But the strategy also acknowledges that goals won't be met by 2010, given the high costs and "gearing up" needed to achieve the reductions. The strategy says full implementation will likely "reach at least well into the next decade" and even then would require "considerable enhanced federal financial support."

The 2010 goal for implementing the strategy is "a joke," agreed Lorraine. "It takes years to earn a farmer's trust."

New York's program calls for "comprehensive nutrient management plans" that go beyond those required in most other states. It takes at least two years for those plans to be implemented and certified. "Let's be realistic," Lorraine said. "We've got a problem. But let's have a 25-year plan, not a three-year plan."

Even within New York, the Susquehanna competes poorly with other water bodies. In a state that contains the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River and borders Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario and Long Island Sound, it ranks as an unwanted stepchild, Curatolo said.

Outside officials credit Curatolo and his colleagues for taking up the challenge. "They've got the sense that 'we're the underdogs,'" one federal official observed. "'Unless we speak up for ourselves, no one else is going to.'"

They have had some success. Efforts to push toward rotational grazing-which can sharply reduce runoff from dairy farms-are largely focused in the Bay watershed. They have tapped many funding sources, and in 2006 won an EPA Targeted Watershed Grant to support nutrient reduction and stream protection.

The Bay link, Curatolo said, has helped to attract additional funds. But they are used to target regional priorities.

In fact, the New York strategy has a distinct regional twist. The mainstem of the Susquehanna in New York floods, on average, every two decades. But portions of smaller tributaries flood annually. The seriousness of the issue was punctuated by catastrophic floods in June 2006 that killed two people in the upper Susquehanna and left many communities under water.

In the wake of those floods, the tributary strategy contains a "special note" saying project priorities will consider such factors as future flood damage prevention.

"In the aftermath of these floods, additional implementation emphasis will now be placed on riparian buffers, wetlands and road drainage," said Lori O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the DEC. "These activities will help mitigate flooding and also contribute to nutrient and sediment reduction."

Much of the region is filled with steep-sloped hills. Towns and homes are in flat areas, which are often flood plains. Rapid runoff gouges deep ditches along roads climbing over the hills. Many stream crossings consist of culverts too small to handle high spring flows. They create mini dams, where water backs up on one side and gushes out the culvert on the other side with the power of a firehose, scouring sediment from the banks and adding to downstream woes.

Fear of flooding has resulted in many efforts to "clean" streams, which often means bulldozing creeks to remove any potential obstructions, and creating small gravel dikes along the stream banks. Instead of spreading water over its floodplain, this shunts even more water downstream.

The strategy calls for stabilizing road ditches and restoring flood plains when possible. It calls for repairing streams gouged by runoff, and educational efforts for property owners about natural stream processes.

Restoring wetlands, which store and filter flood water, is a priority. New York's portion of the watershed has 165,510 acres of wetlands-about 4 percent of its land-although Curatolo estimates that twice that many existed when the area was settled.

The coalition has restored about 4,000 acres in recent years, and the strategy will ramp up efforts. It calls for establishing or rehabilitating 7,344 acres of wetlands, including 3,344 on agricultural land and 4,000 acres on other land uses.

Curatolo, who prides himself on the success of the wetlands program, continues to look for ways to hold back the water.

Lately, he's been pondering ways to come up with funding to build ponds across the landscape which-like stormwater detention ponds in urban areas-would collect and hold water after heavy rains. "Half of the ponds in 50 years will turn into wetlands anyway," he noted.

The vernal ponds are one of his most recent experiments, and draws money from an unusual source for a flood control project-the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's State Wildlife Grant program, which is aimed at preserving native wildlife and habitats.

Vernal ponds are temporary pools of water that form from snow melt and spring rain each year. They create ideal spawning habitat for many salamanders and other amphibians. Because the ponds dry up during the summer, they don't support fish and other predators that would eat little tadpoles.

Vernal ponds often get little protection because they are not wet all the time. Curatolo's project is trying to recreate an important habitat, and at the same time slow runoff that would worsen erosion and flooding downstream.

A couple of days' work with a back hoe resulted in a whole network of vernal ponds along the rutted logging tract. As part of the grant, the pools are being monitored to see how they support amphibians compared to natural ponds. That could lead to better designs in the future.

And, it means less water running into Sulfur Spring Creek, less flooding downstream-and maybe less nutrients reaching the Bay.

"With any stream, you want start with the headwaters and kind of work your way down," Curatolo said. "But if that's all mucked up, it is harder to put Humpty Dumpty back together again."

Key Elements of New York's Tributary Strategy

Agriculture

  • Comprehensive nutrient management plan: Increase from 14 percent to 71 percent of available acreage
  • Animal Waste Systems: Create an additional 600 constructed systems
  • Conservation Tillage: Increase from 7 percent to 36 percent of available acreage
  • Cover Crops: Increase from 0 percent to 54 percent of available acreage
  • Prescribed Rotational Grazing and/or Streambank Fencing: Increase from 13 percent to 78 percent of existing pasture acreage (about 15 percent of total agricultural lands)
  • Precision feeding: Implement on about 250 dairy farms
  • Riparian Buffers: Increase from 12 percent to 38 percent of available acreage
  • Voluntary Land Retirement: Increase from 5,400 acres to 18,400 acres
  • Wetland Restoration: Restore an additional 3,300 acres on farmlands

Wetlands

The strategy calls for restoring or establishing 4,000 acres of wetlands, beyond those restored on agricultural lands, to reduce nutrients, help control flooding and improve habitat.

Urban Stormwater

The state will continue to implement stormwater control programs and will emphasize cost-effective practices such as tree planting and street cleaning to reduce runoff, as well as a modest level of more costly structural runoff control practices. It will also promote education and outreach to municipal officials.

Forests / Air Pollution

The tributary strategy calls for the Bay Program to push for stronger air pollution control standards. About 70 percent of the watershed in New York is forested, but it contributes a quarter of the nitrogen, largely because of air pollution.

Point Sources

The tributary strategy goal is to reduce nitrogen discharges from 3.7 million pounds to 2.3 million pounds, and to reduce phosphorus from 476,000 pounds to 234,000 pounds. The strategy suggests upgrading a subset of the 28 major dischargers to meet the nitrogen goal in the most cost-effective way possible, but notes that upgrades at all facilities may be needed to meet the phosphorus goal.

Stream and Road Corridors

The strategy calls for stabilizing road ditches and banks as part of an effort to return streams to their natural hydrology. Over time, the strategy calls for restoring stream channels, wetlands and flood plains as a means of improving water quality and reducing flooding.

The most expensive component of the agricultural portion of the strategy is implementing the state's comprehensive nutrient management plan program on 71 percent of cropland, or 303,924 acres.

While nutrient management is usually considered a low-cost action, New York's plans require added elements, the most costly of which is building animal waste storage systems needed to hold excess manure until it can be applied in accordance with nutrient management plans.

About half of the $240 million cost of implementing the agricultural portion of the tributary strategy goes toward funding manure storage structures.

"If you are going to have a nutrient management plan, you need manure management structures if you are going to implement it," said Jim Curatolo, watershed coordinator for the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. "I don't know how to get around it. You can't just spread it every day."

For point sources, the projected cost of upgrading all 28 major dischargers is about $200 million-a figure that has raised concern among plant operators.

Unlike Maryland and Virginia, which have programs to help pay for wastewater treatment plant upgrades, municipalities in New York have to largely foot the bill on their own to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus discharges.

"The cost of water and sewer infrastructure is a major issue and we can not emphasize enough the need for federal assistance," said Lori O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the DEC.

In public comments, some worried that costs of upgrades could further hurt a region where urban areas are already in dire straights economically.

To reduce the burden, the tributary strategy calls for upgrading only the most cost-effective treatment plants until the point source goal for nitrogen is met, likely sparing most facilities the expense until some time in the future.

A $60 million upgrade to the Binghamton-Johnson City wastewater treatment plant, for instance, may single-handedly achieve about a quarter of the needed reductions from dischargers. (The $5 million portion of the upgrade needed to reduce nitrogen was covered by a federal grant.)

But the DEC anticipates most plants will need upgrades to meet the new phosphorus reduction goals.

The state most distant from the Bay-and the last to complete a tributary strategy-may be the first to meet a major goal.

The Bay Program, using an array of new monitoring data and computer models, is in the midst of a multiyear review of progress toward meeting Chesapeake water quality goals. Preliminary information indicates New York is on a trajectory to meet its nitrogen goal soon, although more work remains for phosphorus.

In a way, the state's distance from the Bay also played a role. Because it had not been an active participant in the cleanup effort prior to 2000, older computer models used to estimate the amount of nutrients leaving the state relied on land use information that was not current. They underestimated the amount of low-runoff forest land and overestimated the amount of high-runoff crop land in the drainage. Discharges from wastewater treatment plants were also overestimated.

A new monitoring station near the New York-Pennsylvania border also confirms that observed nutrient levels are lower than estimated-and dropping. Some of the nutrients previously thought to be coming from New York are more likely to coming from Pennsylvania.

"We have a better model calibration for the New York portion of the basin because of better and more extensive monitoring data," said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA's Bay Program Office.

But he said it's too early to say if New York has met its goal, which would be determined based on monitoring or whether nutrient allocations will be adjusted among states. That will wait until the full review is completed late next year.

Even if the nitrogen goal is met sometime soon, officials say it won't be an end to their efforts. Work will still be needed to achieve the phosphorus goal.

Jim Curatolo, watershed coordinator for the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, said the need for such things as nutrient management doesn't go away, even if nutrient goals are met. "That's a local issue," he said. "That's a sustainability issue. Every farm should have a nutrient management plan."

Lori O'Connell, a spokeswoman for Department of Environmental Conservation, agreed that implementation would continue because of local benefits. "While some of these projects may be driven by sediment or phosphorus reduction or to address flooding and habitat needs, they also will have nitrogen reduction benefits," she said.

And while the trends look good now, there are threats that could still make New York's job tougher. The region's population isn't growing, but some new development is taking place, adding impervious surfaces.

Another concern is growing demand for corn, which produces large amounts of both nutrient and sediment runoff. Plantings are on the rise, and an ethanol plant is planned along the edge of the watershed that could further increase demand.

"Corn is going to be a real problem," Curatolo said. Marginal farmlands in the region have gradually converted to low-runoff meadow lands and forests, contributing to the state's overall nutrient decline. But that idled land could again come under the plow if corn prices stay high.

A major part of the state's tributary strategy is encouraging dairy farmers to switch from confining animals and feeding them corn and other grains to grass-based grazing systems, which produce less nutrient runoff. "We really hope our farmers don't just get rid of cows and just grow corn," Curatolo said.

NY's Water Quality Goal

Nitrogen 2006 model estimate: 31.7 million
Goal: 23.2 million

Phosphorus 2006 model estimate: 1.84 million
Goal: 1.09 million

Note: The model estimates are expected to be revised downward in 2008 based on new information.