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Educate >Watershed Conservation > My Project

Watershed Conservation

Nearly half of the streams and rivers in Lancaster County are considered to be polluted by the Department of Environmental Protection. 

As dramatic as that may seem, Lancaster’s Watersheds are not beyond repair.  There are countless ways that regular citizens can get involved with the maintenance and improvement of their local watersheds.  Things you can do to help are as simple as determining the needs of your grass and plants to avoid using excessive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides and performing routine checks on your septic system to avoid polluting the groundwater.

If doing your part individually isn’t enough, there are also numerous organizations in the Lancaster area that residents can become involved with to preserve Lancaster’s watersheds.  This site will provide you with the details and contact information of many of these organizations. 

Everyone lives in a watershed, and if Lancaster residents can pull together and each do a small portion of the work, we can have our streams and rivers cleaned up in no time.  Many people do things that are damaging to local watersheds without realizing their effects, and if we can change that, we’re already headed in the right direction.


What is a watershed?

Why should I care?

What can I do to help?

What can I not do to help?

Where can I find other people like me who want to help?

How do I make a riparian buffer?

What is a rain garden?

Where should I put my rain garden?



What is a watershed?

The answer is simpler than you’d expect.  A watershed is an area of land that drains into a specific body of water.  A watershed can be so large that it encompasses several states, or so small that you could hop across it. 


the banks of the conestoga river at lancaster county central park


Why should I care?

Although almost half of Lancaster County’s streams and rivers are polluted, it’s not too late to take a step back and think about ways that we can reverse the damage.  Polluted water can lead to countless other problems for the health of the planet as well as its inhabitants.  It’s time to clean up Lancaster County’s water. 

What can I do to help?


  • Plant native vegetation on the banks of a stream.  This natural filter, called a Riparian buffer, keeps things out of the water that shouldn’t be there.  Riparian buffers are one of the best methods of preventing water pollution.

  • Limit the amount of time you spend in the shower.  Spending too much time in the shower can waste thousands of gallons of water each year.

  • Update your home with water-saving low-flow toilets and showers.

  • Turn off the water while you brush your teeth to save water.

  • Wait until you have a full load of laundry before using the washing machine.  Also, most washing machines have adjustable settings for smaller loads that can conserve water.

  • Reuse water that would otherwise be poured down the drain for watering plants or cleaning.

  • Position your sprinklers to maximize benefits.  A sprinkler that spends half its time watering the street or your driveway is wasteful.

  • Wash your car at a car wash that recycles its water.  Cloister Wash & Lube’s new location in nearby Sinking Spring recycles rainwater to wash portions of cars.  Read more here.

  • If you wash your car at home, drive it onto the lawn to water the grass.

  • Aim your downspouts into vegetation areas and not onto pavement.  This decreases stormwater runoff.

  • Perform routine maintenance on your car to discover leaks as soon as possible.  Anything that touches the ground will eventually end up in Lancaster’s natural water supply.

  • Properly use and dispose of household cleaning products to avoid polluting.

  • Have your septic system inspected regularly to prevent unknown leaks.

  • Pick up any trash that you come across in your community.

  • Use mulch in your yard.  A layer of mulch helps to prevent evaporation.


image of a streambed in lancaster county


What can I not do to help?


  • Mow the grassy area on the banks of a body of water.  Removing the natural vegetation next to a creek or stream limits the filtration of pollutants and increases stormwater flows.

  • Mess with perfection.  Changing the course or size of a stream increases the possibility of water quality issues.  Mother Nature knew what she was doing.

  • Thaw frozen foods by running them under tap water.  Planning ahead will allow you to thaw foods overnight in the refrigerator or in the microwave.

  • Operate the dishwasher with less than a full load of dirty dishes.

  • Ignore the obvious.  Pay attention to your home to discover leaks and other causes of water waste.

  • Overwater your lawn.  Even in the hottest days of summer, grass will benefit from watering only about once a week – anything more is overdoing it.

  • Go overboard when mowing the lawn.  A lawn cut too short will hold less moisture than one left a little longer.

  • Over-fertilize your lawn.  Excess fertilizer pollutes groundwater and increases the need for water.

  • Let others get away with it.  Report any illegal polluting to the authorities.  To report an environmental incident in Lancaster County to the Department of Environmental Protection, call 877.333.1904.

  • Litter.  Any waste products that are not properly disposed of can be carried by stormwater into Lancaster’s streams and creeks.

  • Leave your swimming pool uncovered all summer.  Using a pool cover when it’s not in use will prevent evaporation.

  • Flush unused prescription medications like was once recommended.  Reports show that this damages the environment.  Consult the bottle or your pharmacist for specific information.

  • Use a garden hose to clean your sidewalk or driveway.  A broom will do just fine and save water. 

  • Stop bringing it up.  Encourage your children’s school to promote water conservation.  Talk to your boss about ways to conserve at work.  Conversation can lead to conservation. 

  • Constantly use water for your garbage disposal.  Start a compost heap to dispose of most of your food waste.




Where can I find other people like me who want to help?


the banks of the conestoga river in lancaster county


Lancaster County has dozens of organizations that are dedicated to cleaning up and maintaining the quality of the area’s creeks, steams, and rivers.  Here are just a few.

  • Chiques Creek Watershed Alliance

This organization is dedicated to maintaining a responsible relationship with the land within the Chiques Creek Watershed in Rapho Township.  Their philosophy is that proper land use will improve the current quality of water in the community and also ensure that future generations will benefit from clean water.  The organization also completes stream assessments of the Chiques Creek, organizes preservation and cleanup efforts, and provides information and educational materials to the community about watershed conservation.|6859|


  • Cocalico Creek Watershed Association

The Cocalico Creek Watershed Association operates from northern Lancaster County.  Some of its focuses are on Cocalico Creek, Little Cocalico Creek, Indian Run, and Harnish Run.  Some of the organization’s projects include feasibility studies and assessments, annual cleanup events, and partnerships with students to encourage responsible treatment of the watershed.  For more information you can contact Dave Weidman at P.O. Box 121, Reinholds, PA 17569

  • Columbia Borough Watershed Association

The Columbia Borough Watershed Association has acted to improve and maintain the quality of the watershed in the Columbia area of Lancaster County.  Some of the streams that it serves are Strickler Run and Shawnee Run, as well as the area around the Susquehanna River.  Meetings are held at 308 Locust Street in Columbia, and the Columbia Borough Watershed Association can be reached at 717.684.2654.

  • Conoy Creek Watershed Association

The Conoy Creek Watershed Associations serves the streams of western Lancaster County, including Snitz Creek and Conoy Creek.  The association completes cleanup projects as well as educational campaigns to spread the word about watershed conservation in Lancaster.  Meetings of the Conoy Creek Watershed Association are held at the Masonic Village Patton Campus in Elizabethtown.  The association can be reached at

  • Trout Unlimited (Donegal Chapter)

Trout Unlimited is a nationwide organization with over 125,000 members and 500 chapters, including one in Donegal.  The umbrella association focuses on trout and salmon fisheries in North America, but the end result is an overall healthier watershed.  The Donegal Chapter is dedicated to improving Conowingo Creek, Shearer’s Run, Donegal Spring Creek, the West Branch of the Little Conestoga, and other streams.

  • Donegal Fish & Conservation Association

Another organization that operates to conserve the watershed of western Lancaster County is the Donegal Fish & Conservation Association.  The first meeting of the association was more than 40 years ago and membership is still strong today.  It strives to protect and serve the Donegal Creek Watershed and also operates a cooperative trout nursery with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

  • Friends of Fishing Creek

Friends of Fishing Creek promotes the quality of Fishing Creek in southern Lancaster County.  Its services include watershed assessments, restoration projects, and cleanup events.  Friends of Fishing Creek meets on the last Wednesday of each month at the Quarryville Library and can be reached at

  • Furnace Run/Segloch Run Watershed Alliance

The Furnace Run/Segloch Run Watershed Alliance has been in operation since 2001.  The association is responsible for dozens of efforts to cleanup Furnace Run and Segloch Run, including annual cleanup events, watershed-wide conservation plans, riparian buffer installations, and bank stabilization.  Its hard work won the Lancaster County Conservation District Watershed Award in 2005.  For more information contact President Annie Reinhart of 929 State Road, Newmanstown, PA 17073.

  • Hammer Creek Watershed Association

The Hammer Creek Watershed Association has been driven to preserve the water quality of Hammer Creek in northern Lancaster County since 2000.  Its efforts boast successful watershed-wide restoration plans, wetland creation, and riparian buffer installations.  It won the Lancaster County Conservation District Watershed Award in 2001.  The Hammer Creek Watershed Association meets at the Elizabeth Township Municipal Building in Lititz.  For more information contact President Gary Trostle at

  • Lititz Run Watershed Alliance

The Lititz Run Watershed Alliance works to maintain and improve the Lititz Run Watershed by raising public awareness, conserving natural resources, using sound land planning techniques, and educating the public.  The association’s efforts include stream bank stabilization, riparian buffer installation, educational workshops about watershed conservation, and the creation of a six-acre water quality facility.  It continues to stress the importance of water quality and environmental responsibility to the residents of Lancaster County.|

  • Little Conestoga Watershed Alliance

The Little Conestoga Watershed Alliance was founded in 2000 and is dedicated to the continual enhancement of water quality, stream restoration, and preservation of natural resources within the Little Conestoga Creek Watershed.  The Alliance restores streams through member projects, including planting native vegetation to create riparian buffers on the banks of streams in central Lancaster County.

  • Millcreek Preservation Association

The Millcreek Preservation Association serves central Lancaster County and focuses on such streams as Groff Run, Muddy Run, Mill Creek, and Reeser’s Run.  It was established in 2003 and since has improved the local watershed with projects like the creation of riparian buffers, educational outreach programs, and watershed-wide assessment plans. The Millcreek Preservation Association meets at the Ressler Mill Carriage House in Leola.  For more information contact President Christ Mill at P.O. Box 300, Bird-in-Hand, PA 17505.

  • Octoraro Watershed Association

The Octoraro Watershed Association is dedicated to protecting and conserving the Octoraro Watershed, which covers 208 square miles.  It was established more than 40 years ago and continues to promote actions that improve local water quality.  Its members have completed projects to strengthen the Octoraro Watershed through stream channel design, the construction of cattle crossings and manure storage facilities, and stream channel design among many other techniques.

  • Paradise Sportsmen Association

The Paradise Sportsmen Association was founded in the 1970s and provides contributions to improve Pequea Creek, Eshleman Run, and Londonland Run.  Some of the association’s projects include stream restoration, stream bank fencing, riparian buffer installation, and pond restoration.  Meetings are held the first Wednesday of each month at the Paradise Sportsmen Association building, located at 41 Peach Lane, Road 2, Ronks, PA 17572.

  • Tri-County Conewago Creek Watershed Association

The Tri-County Conewago Creek Association is a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to maintaining, preserving, improving and promoting the Conewago Creek Watershed through education, community involvement and watershed improvement projects.  Some of its activities include planting native vegetation to create riparian buffers, stream cleanup activities, and the creation and distribution of educational materials.




How do I make a riparian buffer?

One of the most common and effective ways that watershed conservation organizations make a difference is through the implementation of riparian buffers.  Riparian buffers are borders made of native vegetation on steams and creeks that filter out pollution before it enters the waterway.  Riparian buffers, while also adding beauty to the landscape, act to remove dangerous chemicals and sediment from storm water before it reaches the stream.  Additionally, riparian buffers help to mediate flooding, reduce erosion, and help local wildlife to flourish. 

Riparian buffers can be made of any vegetation but they usually are composed of native shrubs, trees, and grasses.  The riparian buffers that are the most beneficial to natural waterways are made with three distinct zones in mind.  This is referred to as the three zone buffer concept.  The zone closest to the water is zone 1, and zone 3 is farthest from the water.  Each plant provides its own function, and the result is a flourishing community of plants that protects the stream or lake.  Shrubbery and trees work to maintain the quality and security of soil with their deep roots.  Grasses reduce runoff and filter sediment because of their high density, and everything combines to form a symphony of watershed protection. 



Zone 1

Zone 1, which is closest to the water, is mostly composed of trees and serves as the final line of defense for the waterway.  The trees planted in zone 1 provide stability for the streambed and bank.  Things that fall from the trees in zone 1, like deadwood and dead leaves, even add a level of protection to the water.  They help to rebuild the streambed as they fall from the trees and prevent the constant state of erosion that streams undergo. 



The trees placed in zone 1 of a riparian buffer are simply chosen at random.  In fact different trees are recommended for different parts of the country and world.  Usually, only trees that are native to the area in question are selected because they have evolved with all of the other plant species in the area.  In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which includes Lancaster County, the best trees are ones that grow rapidly and prefer wet conditions.  Other qualities that are appropriate for riparian buffers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed are strong and flexible trunks and brittle branches.  This allows the trees and buffer to stay firmly in place even during prolonged periods of heavy flooding because while the branches break and wash away, the trunk and roots stay in place. 

Some Recommended Trees for Zone 1 in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

* American beech
* Bald cypress
* Basswood
* Bitternut hickory
* Blackgum
* Black walnut
* Green ash
* Hackberry
* Loblolly pine
* Persimmon
* Pitch pine
* Red maple
* Silver maple
* Sweetgum
* Swamp white oak
* Sycamore
* Tulip poplar
* White ash

All of these trees are large, but smaller trees and shrubs should be planted in between and under the canopy of larger trees.  Smaller trees and shrubs provide shade and an extra level of strength for the stream bank.  The best species are ones that flourish with large amounts of water and are able to withstand periods of flooding.

Some Recommended Shrubs and Plants for Zone 1 in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed


* American holly
* Arrowhead
* Bayberry
* Blackhaw
* Boxelder
* Buttonbush
* Common ninebark
* Elderberry
* Flowering dogwood
* Grey dogwood
* Hornbeam
* Inkberry
* Maple leaf viburnum
* Paw paw
* Pinxterbloom azalea
* Pussy willow
* Red chokeberry
* Redbud
* Rosebay rhododendron
* Shad bush
* Swamp azalea
* Swamp leucothoe
* Sweet bay
* Sweet pepperbush
* Virginia sweetspire
* winterberry



Zone 2

Zone 2 is the area located between zones 1 and 3.  Like the first zone, zone 2 is made of mostly large trees and has smaller trees and shrubbery planted throughout the rest of the area.  Unlike zone 1 however, which should be disturbed as little as possible, zone 2 can withstand a bit more disturbance.  For instance, logging can even be done if executed properly in zone 2 of a riparian buffer.  Also, more than just native species may be planted in zone 2.  Christmas trees and herbs for example, may be planted without undermining the effectiveness of the buffer. 

What's most important is that a variety of vegetation is planted.  A diverse mix ensures that the riparian buffer won't be rendered ineffective if one species of plant fails to thrive.   The largest function of zone 2 is to allow some water to penetrate the soil, where it is filtered and cleansed. 



Zone 3

Zone 3 is made up mostly of grasses, unlike zones 1 and 2 which are centered around trees.   The vegetation of zone 3 provides many vital functions to the riparian buffer.  Grasses filter sediment, increase water absorption capacity, store nutrients, and help the stream to endure erosion.  The best grasses for zone 3 are ones that flourish in all types of weather and provide dense ground coverage.  Switchgrass is ideal because its blades stand upright throughout the entire year.  For best results, there should be a minimal amount of trees and shrubbery planted in zone 3.

The grasses of zone 3 work to spread out the concentrated storm water that it encounters and create a more even, steady flow onto the other zones of the riparian buffer, and eventually into the waterway.  Thick grasses also trap some of the water and allow it to infiltrate the soil.  This process also brings nutrients into the soil and forces much of the sediment that would otherwise be discarded in the waterway to be retained among the different zones of the buffer. 

There are many different recommendations for planting depending upon specific situations, but a good bet is to plant trees 8 to 12 feet apart.  Smaller trees and shrubs can be planted in the open areas between larger trees.  Grass seeds, if of high enough quality, can be spread using a spinner or drop seeder.  Most trees and shrubbery should be planted in early spring to achieve the best results. 

The most important thing to keep in mind is that all appropriate vegetation should be planted as soon as possible after they are acquired.  It's also recommended that the planner of a riparian buffer orders more plants than he or she thinks are necessary.  Extra plants can be placed in a holding area nearby the riparian buffer and used if other vegetation fails.

How do I nurture a new riparian buffer?

The key to maintaining a healthy and effective riparian buffer is weed control.  Obviously, the most beneficial ways to control weeds for the waterway are non-chemical methods.  Weed control methods that use chemicals and harmful agents inevitably find their way into the waterway, and then the purpose of the riparian buffer is undermined.  Some of the recommended non-chemical methods include spreading 4 to 6 inches of organic mulch, routine mowing, and using pre-emergent herbicides, which prevent the germination of unwanted seeds.

Weed control is most important to the health of a riparian buffer during the first few years, while vegetation is still developing.  Throughout the first year, the grasses of zone 3 should be kept at about 6 inches high.  In the second year, grasses may be allowed to grow higher in order to protect the other plants and wildlife.

How do I maintain a riparian buffer in the long run?

The best way to ensure the health of a riparian buffer is to pay close attention.  Annual inspections are recommended, but it should also be checked at other appropriate times.  For instance, the riparian buffer should be inspected after a particularly strong storm to be sure that significant erosion or sediment deposit has not occurred.  If any damage is discovered, a maintenance project should be planned as soon as possible. 

Grasses and fast-growing trees should be periodically harvested to promote and stimulate growth.  The best time of year to do so is winter, because the vegetation will keep the integrity of its root system and continue to fortify the banks of the stream.  Also, riparian buffers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed should be left untouched between the months of April and August if possible.  Most mating occurs during this time and any intrusions could be harmful to wildlife.

What is a rain garden?

The creation of a rain garden is one of the easiest ways that individuals with limited resources can help to conserve the quality of their watershed, not to mention that they add beauty and attractiveness to the community.  A rain garden is nothing more than a natural or dug shallow depression in the ground that acts to capture and absorb storm water runoff.  The runoff occurs because water that falls on impervious surfaces like roofs, driveways, or sidewalks continues to travel until it reaches an area that it can soak into.  Rain gardens capture storm water runoff and prevent it from causing watershed quality issues.

What are the benefits of a rain garden?

Besides trapping storm water and reducing the amount of storm water runoff in a watershed, rain gardens also provide numerous other benefits.  For example, while making the landscape more attractive, they require less maintenance than a traditional lawn because they don't need to be mowed.  Also, they provide a home for interesting insects and other wildlife that would otherwise not be seen.  A uniquely designed rain garden can even increase property values and boost home sales.

Where should I put my rain garden?

Choosing the location of a rain garden is vital to its success. 

* Place the rain garden in an area that is exposed to the sun.  A rain garden located in the shade or under a large tree will be less effective than a rain garden placed in the sun.
* Find a spot for your rain garden at least ten feet away from your house.  Anywhere closer could allow water to seep into the foundation of the house.
* Choose a location for your rain garden that already experiences a large amount of settling water.  The point of the project is to promote the infiltration of storm water into the ground.  The areas of your yard that pool water on top of the soil indicate that the ground underneath is unlikely to allow infiltration. 
* Build your rain garden over a septic system or near wells and underground utilities.


How do I choose the plants for my rain garden?

Similarly to creating an effective riparian buffer, native vegetation is the best to use for a rain garden.  Recommended species are ones that can withstand extremely wet conditions, as well as dry periods between rainfalls.  Vegetation that has large root structures will be best suited to thrive in a rain garden.  It is also recommended that plants already have an established root structure when inserted into a rain garden.  Seeds planted in a rain garden will have difficulty developing because of harsh conditions.

Recommended trees for a rain garden

* Red maple
* Shadblow
* River birch
* Gray birch
* Red-paneled dogwood
* White ash
* Green ash
* Witchhazel
* Red cedar
* American sweetgum
* Tupelo
* American hop hornbeam
* Swamp white oak
* Pin oak
* Red oak

Recommended shrubs and vines for a rain garden

* Red chokeberry
* Black chokeberry
* Wild clematis
* Sweet pepperbush
* Red twig dogwood
* Black huckleberry
* Inkberry
* American holly

Recommended perennials and herbaceous plants
* Jack-in-the-pulpit
* Wild columbine
* Bushy aster
* Heath aster
* Tufted hair grass
* Carolina lovegrass
* New York fern
* Rough goldenrod

Many of the plants listed above are also known to be attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, and other attractive insects.

How do I maintain the health of a rain garden?

After the first year and as young plants become more established, they should require no additional watering.  However, they may require extra water during dry periods while they are young.  The only other maintenance that a rain garden requires is periodic mulching and pruning.  And, like caring for a riparian buffer, it is important to periodically inspect the health of a rain garden.







This site was created by Derek Denlinger (email) who is a student at Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Last updated on February 10, 2008

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