Watershed by Watershed: an Interview with Kristen Saacke Blunk

Kristen Saacke Blunkby SARA LAJEUNESSE

Writer Sara LaJeunesse talks with Kristen Saacke Blunk, director of the Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center and senior extension associate, about her efforts to improve the quality of Pennsylvania’s water resources and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

SL: In 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. What is Penn State’s role in helping to meet this goal?

KSB: The Susquehanna River provides more than half of the Chesapeake Bay’s fresh water and roughly half of the nutrient pollution degrading it, so Pennsylvanians who manage agricultural and forest lands, home lawns, wastewater treatment systems, septic systems, sports fields, golf courses, and roads play a huge role in the bay’s future health. The challenge is to convince people who don’t own real estate on the Chesapeake Bay to make changes in the way they use and manage their land far upstream. We’re helping people adopt conservation practices to improve the quality of water here—with the added benefit of improving and protecting the Chesapeake Bay. I help by training and providing resources to the people who work directly with landowners, including extension educators and conservation practitioners in local, state, and federal government. Conservation practitioners often have the greatest influence on what choices land managers are making, but the bay’s challenges are perhaps best resolved by taking a small watershed-by-watershed approach.

SL: You have focused much of your effort in the Conewago Creek Watershed. Why?

KSB: Conewago Creek is polluted by runoff from urban and agricultural practices related to earth-moving activities, heavy animal-use areas, tilling ground, and applying manure and commercial fertilizers to crops. These activities, in combination with rain, can result in pollutants running off to local streams. With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and others, Penn State is facilitating an integrated initiative to restore the Conewago Creek. This whole-community approach brings together farmers, other land managers, and their neighbors to reduce runoff from all sectors.

SL: What is the most interesting thing that has happened in your job?

KSB: I’ve been delighted by the way people have embraced technology. In 2009, we launched the educational webinar program “Manure du Jour: Serving Pennsylvania’s Best Practices on Animal Ag, Air Quality, and Water Quality.” We now have more than 30 episodes that feature the science, research, and application of conservation practices that will help reduce emissions from production landscapes. As an outcome of the webinar, we have helped conservation practitioners get better access to the research and science, and they in turn have improved how they take the science to the field and engage the farmers and other land managers in using these practices.

SL: How did you become interested in environmental issues?

KSB: My family camped for summer vacations, which instilled in me an early love for the natural world. When I graduated from high school, my essay on “why I wanted to pursue an environmental/conservation career” was selected for the Izaak Walton League’s national fellowship program, enabling me to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at its Leetown National Fisheries Research Center. I still have the essay, and it makes me smile when I read it because it’s a reminder that the wisdom of our youth can resonate through life and influence the choices and vocations we pursue.