Westmoreland Conservation District Celebrates 70 Years
By Westmoreland Conservation District
A lot of good things have happened in Westmoreland County in the 70 years since the Westmoreland Conservation District was founded.
The quality of water in hundreds of miles of streams has gotten better. Thousands of acres of Westmoreland County soil are stabilized. And many forest- and woodlands are healthy and productive.
The Conservation District has had a major hand in making these things happen, working with like minded organizations, companies, and area citizens to protect the integrity of the natural resources we all share.
The organization also has helped to heal many environmental wounds from the past – such as the 100 or so barren piles of coal waste that scarred our county’s landscape as recently as the 1980s.
Today, most of those waste piles have been removed and the land reclaimed.
Likewise, many streams that were once orange now run much cleaner, thanks to passive wetland treatment projects the District and its partners installed at Saint Vincent College, Lowber, Brinkerton, and other locations throughout the county.
“Our goal is to help people use resources wisely,” explained Greg Phillips, who as district manager and CEO, has been guiding the Westmoreland Conservation District for a little more than half of the organization’s existence.
District staff members spend much of their time working one-on-one with engineers, earthmovers, farmers, loggers, and others whose profession brings them in contact with the natural resources.
“We help them get their work done in a way that doesn’t adversely impact the soil, water, and other natural resources,” Phillips said. “As we’ve learned from past coal-mining and agricultural practices, it’s far better to prevent problems like water pollution before they happen, rather than to have to clean them up afterward.”
In the late 1940s when the District was founded, farming was the major occupation in the county, and farmers were looking for ways to stop their valuable soil from eroding into nearby streams.
One of the earliest conservation practices the District promoted was plowing in line with the contour of the land-- a novel idea at the time that is now a well-accepted farming practice.
Today, the District’s agricultural technician continues to help farmers keep up with the latest proven conservation practices, such as preparing fields for planting without any tilling at all, which saves time and fuel, and creates even less erosion than contour farming.
Conservation practices in every area of conservation have been continuously improving over the decades, and Phillips and his staff often create real-world demonstrations of the best ones as a way to showcase their effectiveness and encourage their use in the field.
Over the past few years, the District has demonstrated a number of innovative ways to manage stormwater, installing porous pavers, rain gardens, swales, and even a green roof-- Westmoreland County’s first-- on the GreenForge building next door to their headquarters.
The Westmoreland Conservation District was the first district in Pennsylvania to hire a hydraulic engineer and implement a stormwater-management program (in 1988).
“We began by simply educating people on the idea of actively doing something to manage rain and melting ice and snow,” Phillips said, “and, over the years, best practices in this field have evolved from simply retaining stormwater – the ponds with chain link fences around them that you probably have seen near development sites -- to encouraging infiltration.”
Infiltrating stormwater has a number of community benefits. It recharges the groundwater that many Westmoreland County households with wells rely on. And it lessens the burden on local storm sewer systems, many of which are older. It often also removes the need to install fencing, and instead creates gardens and other pleasing landscape features.
In addition to agriculture and stormwater management, other District programs today include forest stewardship; erosion control; watershed restoration; floodplain management; water-quality practices on low-volume roads; West Nile virus; and water-quality monitoring.
The organization makes its home in a green building along the Donohoe Road in Hempfield Township-- an 1880s barn that was once part of a working farm in the county.
The District moved the barn from Penn Township to the current location and repurposed it, adding green materials and practices, including geothermal heat and cooling, reclaimed wood, iron oxide, structural insulated panels, zoned radiant floor heat, low-E glass, and water-saving toilets.
Phillips invites the public to stop in during business hours (M-F, 8:00 a.m.–Noon and 1:00 p.m.- 4:00 p.m.) to take a look at the barn and the surrounding conservation features, which include a self-guided stormwater trail and an arboretum.
Inside the barn, a display features a timeline of conservation in Westmoreland County from 1949 through 2019, and the names of many of the people who have made the achievements a reality. There is no charge to visit.
The District is located at 218 Donohoe Road, just one mile from Westmoreland Mall.
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[Posted: October 1, 2019]
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