TOWANDA - The state has awarded Bradford County $49,240 to start a county-wide pilot program that will allow land owners and contractors to conduct routine maintenance of streams, including the removal of gravel bars, in order to help prevent flooding and erosion.

"This is a big darn deal," Doug McLinko, chairman of the Bradford County commissioners, said as he announced the award of the state funds at the Bradford County commissioners' meeting on Thursday. There has been "a terrific amount of damage" to private property in Bradford County because, until now, landowners have not been allowed to undertake "common-sense" measures to maintain the streams on their properties, he said.

Under the pilot program, contractors, landowners and municipal employees will have go through a county-run training program, lasting about three days, in order to obtain a government certification to do the stream maintenance work, Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller said.

"The main goal (of the program) is restore the channel" of the streams so that they can carry water and sediment efficiently during large storms, said Joe Quatrini, a technical team leader with the Bradford County Conservation District. The restoration would involve the removal of gravel bars as well as other debris, such as logs and trees, he said.

Some projects that would be conducted under the program work also involve measures to stabilize stream banks at certain locations, such as by placing large pieces of rock along the bank, Miller said.

In Bradford County, gravel bars have built up in stream beds, so that when heavy rains occur, the streams have left their channels, damaging farm fields, nearby roadways, and buildings, Miller said.

Planning for the pilot program is still under way by agencies such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Fish and Boat Commission, so some aspects of the program have yet to be worked out, Quatrini said.

Due to the award of the $49,240 state grant, which comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the county now has the funds in place to start the pilot program, the commissioners said. The grant also includes funds that will be used by the Bradford County Conservation District to run the pilot program, they said.

The start-up work includes doing calculations to determine the proper depth and width of a stream at any location in the county, based on the size of the stream's watershed, the steepness of the stream's path, and other factors, according to Quatrini and Tony Liguori, an agricultural team leader with the Bradford County Conservation District. These optimal dimensions for the steam channels will be used in planning the stream maintenance work, Miller said.

The grant from the Department of Agriculture must be spent by June 30, 2013, so the pilot program will need to be up and running by then, Quatrini said.

The training program will not be complicated, Miller said. Those who take the training program will become familiar with the information that the county will provide them with that will limit the depth and width of the restored steam channel, and will learn how to use that information, he said.

Those taking the training program will also be transported to various sites so that they can see what a stream maintenance project looks like at various stages of completion, he said. And they will get training on how to stabilize stream banks, he said.

While the $49,240 will cover the cost of starting the pilot program, there is currently no government funding in place that landowners will be able to access to help pay for a stream maintenance project on their property, county officials said.

Commissioner McLinko said he expects it will be difficult for the county to secure such funds for landowners, and said he hopes that volunteers will therefore step forward who would take the training course and help their neighbors or others do stream maintenance projects.

It would make sense for landowners to take the training course, if they had a large amount of land and had access to equipment such as bulldozers, backhoes or excavators, Miller said.

Contractors may want to take the training course, either so that they could be hired to undertake stream maintenance projects or so that they could do stream maintenance projects to obtain a free source of gravel, Miller said.

Municipalities may want their employees take the training course so that they can do stream maintenance work to help protect municipal roads from being damaged during heavy rain events, he said.

It is not known yet whether individual landowners would apply for a government permit to have stream maintenance done on their property, or whether there would be a single county-wide permit granted for the maintenance, he said. It's also not known which government agency would grant the permit, he said.

Until now, state regulations have limited the ability of landowners to remove gravel bars.

Landowners have been able to apply for a free General Permit from the Bradford County Conservation District, but the removal of gravel under these permits is limited to 250 linear feet and the permit also stipulates that gravel bars can be removed only to 6 inches above the water line, Quatrini said.

Landowners have also been able to apply for a joint permit from the DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers to do more extensive work in streams, but a lot of times they were required to have an engineering study done before the work went forward, and there is a fee for the joint permit, Quatrini said.

In certain limited circumstances, landowners have also been also been able to obtain an emergency permit from the DEP to do work in streams, such as remove a gravel bar.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.