Butternut Creek, NY

A team with the Otsego County Conservation Association in New York assesses the physical characteristics of Butternut Creek. (Courtesy of the Ostego County Conservation Association)

The Butternut Creek watershed is a small watershed — spanning hills, valleys and idyllic farmland in western Otsego County, NY. The 130-square-mile watershed is home to 10 municipalities — eight towns and two villages. It sits about 20 miles from the county seat of Cooperstown and 20 miles from Oneonta, Otsego County’s largest city.

Butternut Creek is one of the headwater streams of the Upper Susquehanna, whose main waterbody, the Susquehanna River, enters the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, MD. The mainstem of Butternut Creek covers approximately 43 miles, originating in the town of Burlington and flowing south to enter the Unadilla River in Mount Upton. More than 90% of the watershed is either forested or in agriculture.

New York State is a home rule state, which means that local governments have the authority to develop and administer rules and regulations that govern land use. Nineteen of New York’s counties lie within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These counties, along with the states of New York, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, as well as the District of Columbia are responsible for meeting the pollution reduction goals outlined in the 2010 Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load, sometimes called the Bay’s “pollution diet.” Specifically, the TMDL sets a maximum amount of phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment that can enter the Bay while still meeting clean water standards.

Background

The Butternut Creek watershed was originally occupied by the Oneida Indian Nation and Mohawk Tribe. Both were members of the Iroquois Nation. After the Revolutionary War, land use in the watershed changed dramatically as European settlers converted forests to farmland.

In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explored the feasibility of building a dam along the creek. The proposed dam would have displaced hundreds of residents in the town of Butternuts and the village of Gilbertsville. Citizen organizing and advocacy led to the proposal’s de-authorization in 1977.

Watershed management activities in the Butternut Creek watershed are overseen by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Locally, the Otsego County Soil and Water Conservation District and its partner agencies, such as the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, are primarily responsible for protecting water quality. These agencies, along with several nonprofit organizations such as the Butternut Valley Alliance, Otsego Land Trust and Otsego County Conservation Association, carry out the outreach and education, planning and watershed restoration projects that help the watershed thrive.

The challenge

Like many communities throughout New York State, those in Butternut Creek watershed are tasked with providing basic services to their residents: keeping the roads paved in the summer and plowed in the winter. The communities that lie within the Bay watershed must also work with local and state agencies to implement projects that lower the amount of pollutants entering the Bay.

Many of these communities are staffed by part-time employees, and many councilmembers are volunteers. They have small tax bases and are further constrained by a 2% maximum increase in the property tax rate. Grants are typically the only way to fund watershed restoration projects. But the time and resources needed to complete grant applications are limited and often must be weighed against the benefit of applying for grants for fire and EMS services. Grants are also competitive. If a town wants to apply for funding to complete a stream restoration project, they are often competing against dozens of other municipalities in the state.

Technical assistance providers like the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Otsego County Soil and Water Conservation District and Upper Susquehanna Coalition can only help so many communities at once.

At the same time, the 2025 deadline to achieve the cleanup targets set by the TMDL is looming. To further complicate things, there is a large gap in the funding needed for the state to meet its pollution reduction targets. For agricultural best management practices alone, the gap is approximately $32 million. In the Butternut Creek watershed, yearly maintenance costs for existing BMPs exceed $200,000 per year.

Locally, each town regulates land use differently. Some have zoning, others don’t. Some have very active planning boards, while others are more passive. There are very few venues for groups to coordinate land use regulation, and the political will to “regulate” varies.

The solution

In 2019, the Otsego County Conservation Association, in partnership with the Otsego County Soil and Water Conservation District, state Department of Environmental Conservation, Otsego County Planning Department, Butternut Valley Alliance and Otsego Land Trust embarked upon a stakeholder-driven watershed management plan for Butternut Creek. The goal was twofold: give municipalities a unified plan to protect water quality and increase the amount of technical assistance and funding available to them.

The plan evaluates the current nutrient loading scenario in the watershed using the Chesapeake Assessment Scenario Tool and identifies high-priority projects intended to reduce nutrient loading watershedwide. It also uses CAST to analyze the cost profiles of various BMPs to help policymakers expend taxpayer dollars more effectively.

The complete plan is expected in late 2021.

In conclusion, simply having a plan to address nutrient loading is not enough. You also need a clear path to implementation. In my opinion, here is what will be needed to make watershed protection in rural communities a success:

  • State and federal funding agencies need to recognize the benefit of enhancing the capacity of local organizations to carry out watershed restoration activities. This means investing in staff.
  • Significant investments in broadband service and access need to be made. Many amazing geospatial tools are inaccessible to rural communities simply because they lack adequate internet access.
  • Agencies that provide funding need to figure out strategies to target funding toward underserved, rural watersheds as opposed to more heavily populated watersheds. 

Danny Lapin, AICP, is an environmental planner with the Otsego County Conservation Association located in Cooperstown, NY. Lapin serves on the Otsego County Board of Representatives for the City of Oneonta Wards 5 & 6, and he chairs the Oneonta Planning Commission. 

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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