28 December 2016

Part 3 – Watersheds and Agriculture

Watersheds. Look down, you are on one right now. Whether you are standing at Times Square, the Appalachian Trail, or a farm in Virginia, the rain that falls by your feet drains following its associated watershed until it reaches a common outlet like the mouth of a bay, outflow of a reservoir, or any point along a stream channel. How you treat your section of the watershed affects your neighbor and so on, until the water is consumed or reaches its destination.

In this episode of our web series we will learn more about how watersheds work and we’ll dig up important information on how we can keep them healthy so they can continue to provide us with cleaner waterways, safe potable water, and more productive farms.


It was the mid thirties, the decade of the Great Depression and families across the country struggled to weather the economic collapse. The demand for commodity crops like wheat, corn, and cotton encouraged farmers to cultivate the semiarid Great Plains of the midwest. Those farmers agricultural methods favored deep plowing, destroying the natural ecosystem that kept the soil in place. This, combined with years of drought and high winds, created the perfect condition for the large scale erosion we know as the Dust Bowl. Tremendous dust storms developed and carried Midwest topsoil into the atmosphere. The dust would reach as far as New York City. Topsoil conservation was on the mind of every farmer, but they were just beginning to understand what had gone so wrong.

1500 miles away from the Great Plains, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, lies the Honey Hollow watershed, a 650 acre plot of land that would shed much needed light on topsoil conservation. Honey Hollow was made up of a collection of six family farms, each farming to survive the Great Depression. During a period of heavy rain the Honey Hollow Creek flooded. One farmer, Alston Waring, noticed that the soil being carried by the flood, destroying his property, was coming from his neighbor’s farm up the hill. Alston decided to get in touch with the Soil Conservation Service, a new part of the Department of Agriculture created by Congress. After looking at the flooding and erosion, the Soil Conservation Service told Alston that he had a watershed issue that could only be fixed with the cooperation of the other farms in the area.

Alston organized his neighbors who were all experiencing problems of their own. They decided to work together, with the support of the Soil Conservation Service, to improve their watershed. Maps were drafted and plans were set to work with the contours of their land and natural ecosystems. After adopting their new practices all six farms saw tremendous improvements on the productivity of their property. Alston Waring kept a diary of their work and published the story as a bulletin of the Soil Conservation Service titled, Teamwork to Save Soil and Increase Production.

Almost overnight the Honey Hollow Project attracted the attention of the Department of Agriculture, and inspired farmers across the country to change their farming habits.

Today, farms continue to practice unsustainable methods ignoring the needs of our watersheds. Topsoil, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides continue to wash down our waterways causing siltation, toxic algae blooms, and groundwater contamination. And agriculture is not the only threat to our watersheds. Concrete, pavement, and roofs shed water at a very fast rate carrying with it trash, metals, and other urban pollutants down our storm drains.

It’s been over 80 years since the six farmers of the Honey Hollow watershed banned together to address the problems of their land and water. How can we follow their lead to improve the watersheds around us? Can we create a plan, just as they did, to work together to increase the health and productivity of the land we are standing on right now? Can we leave this land, and water, in a better state than when we found it?

For more, check out: The Story of Honey Hollow written by P. Alston Waring