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Sussex CD RCPP Project Tackles Watershed Restoration

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By NACD Intern Meghan Selip

Sussex Conservation District (SCD), in Sussex County, Del., is a district with experience and great insight on carrying out Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) projects. SCD began working on projects quickly after the funding pool was awarded through the 2014 Farm Bill.

SCD has worked on many successful RCPP projects such as the “Accelerating Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plans” in Fiscal Year 14/15 and “Assisting Beginning Farmers with Poultry Head Quarters (HQ) Best Management Practices (BMPs)” in Fiscal Year 16. Sussex County is the largest agricultural county in Delaware and half of the county is in the Chesapeake Bay Region critical conservation area (CCA).

One ongoing RCPP project that has been very successful for SCD is “Assisting Beginning Farmers with Poultry HQ BMPs” in Fiscal Year 16. SCD is the leading partner of this countywide project which helps fund animal mortality practices such as composters or freezers on poultry operations. Sussex County has a booming poultry industry and produces more chickens than any other county in the United States. In the two years prior to 2016, 125 new poultry houses were constructed, and 228 were anticipated to be built in the next two years.

The project began in April 2017 and was awarded $1 million. With around $100,000 left, SCD has “almost spent every bit of it, and expects the rest to be gone within the next couple months,” Debbie Absher, SCD Director of Agricultural Programs said.

While SCD has experienced projects that were completed with flying colors and tremendous success, they also have encountered setbacks with some of their projects.

St. Johnstown Tax Ditch in Greenwood, Del.

The RCPP titled “Watershed Channel Restoration Projects” in Fiscal Year 14/15 was led by SCD and aimed to improve water quality. The project targeted tax ditches, which are unique to the state. Tax ditches were formed in Delaware in the early 1950s to help landowners prevent flooding and assist with drainage on their properties for productive farmland. Each landowner pays taxes to help maintain and operate the ditches. Absher describes them as very elaborate drainage systems with “mini-governments” consisting of members and elected officers to help maintain them.

The tax ditches faced many issues that the RCPP planned to address such as streambank erosion and nutrients and sediment loads. Unfortunately, this project has had many obstacles in comparison with other projects the district has carried out.

Absher said the main complications with the project were due to landowner commitments. For this project, it was hard to get landowners to sign off on matching funds because they already pay taxes for the upkeep of the ditches and these types of practices are very expensive. Looking back, “private ditches may have made it easier to carry out the project because property owners would be more willing to match funds,” Absher said. Additionally, the use of green technology was expensive. SCD encountered roadblocks with eligibility requirements as well as the length of time in the design process.

Although this project was not as successful as others, it provided the district with knowledge going forward with other RCPP projects. Absher says the district is always “thinking ahead for the next round of projects,” and working on the projects has improved the visibility of their district with traditional and non-traditional partners. When asked what advice she’d give future RCPP project managers, Absher says, “remain flexible and stay patient.”

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