Pennsylvania’s farmers and municipalities pay for legislature’s inaction on clean water

·4 min read

Pennsylvania’s legislative leaders find themselves at the proverbial river crossing — either invest in our farms, streams, and green spaces to cut water pollution now or face harsher realities from not only dirtier water, but also federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulators.

On April 18th, the EPA announced it will crack down on Pennsylvania through more statewide inspections and enforcement actions on our farms and local governments to curtail water pollution if the Commonwealth doesn’t act substantially, and now, to reduce water pollution here.

NASA satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay from September 2011 shows sediment washing from the Susquehanna River to south of the Bay Bridge.
NASA satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay from September 2011 shows sediment washing from the Susquehanna River to south of the Bay Bridge.

This comes in response to state officials’ latest failure to act on its duty to protect our waterways — Pennsylvania’s recent plan to cut pollution in the Susquehanna and Potomac River Basin’s fell short by 9.7 million pounds. The state has 90 days — until July 17th — to address its deficiencies or more farms, local governments, and businesses could face further federal actions, including more costly upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, harsher Clean Water Act requirements on farms, developments, and municipalities, among others.

There isn’t a farmer or municipal official that wants this, so how did we get here? The short answer — all water flows downstream.

Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River and its tributaries are a significant part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. And our farms and towns are sending so much pollution runoff, like nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, down to the Chesapeake Bay that it is poisoning and destroying a nationally important ecosystem of wildlife, businesses, and recreational users. In 2010, Pennsylvania, along with five other states and the District of Columbia, voluntarily entered into an agreement to clean up local waters and the Chesapeake Bay by the end of 2025. This commitment was reaffirmed in 2014 when the jurisdictions signed an agreement pledging to meet the goals on time.Since entering this agreement, Pennsylvania has consistently failed to meet all but one of its interim goals or provide sufficient evidence that the state intends to meet its goals by 2025. The one exception is that Pennsylvania’s largest wastewater treatment plants in the watershed have made the necessary investments to significantly reduce phosphorus pollution. Everything else — especially farm runoff — remains far behind where it needs to be.

More:Killing the Chesapeake: Report says it will cost Pa. $521 million a year to save the bay

To its credit, state officials have, in recent years, improved county planning and coordination efforts, including county-level plans developed locally by community leaders.

However, year after year, these local and county leaders have been left dry by the General Assembly, which has failed, repeatedly,  to provide the resources and policies needed to clean up our waterways. Last year, PennFuture released Underfunded and Polluted: Solutions to Fund Clean Water in Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which highlighted a $325 million annual state funding shortfall and the policies needed to address it.

Not all hope is lost. There are three pieces of legislation with wide bipartisan support that the General Assembly could take up between now and July 17 to show Pennsylvania is serious about cleaning up its water pollution problems.

The Clean Streams Fund (CSF) — SB 832 & HB 1901 — would direct $250 million from the American Rescue Plan and create Pennsylvania’s first program dedicated solely to water protection and improvements. The CSF would create important new programs with bipartisan support, such as the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program and the Municipal Stormwater Assistance Program. The CSF addresses Pennsylvania’s top three sources of water pollution: acid mine drainage, agriculture, and stormwater runoff.

Growing Greener III — SB 525 & HB 2020 — proposes to take $500 million from the American Rescue Plan to reinvigorate a popular, bipartisan conservation program that was established in 1999 under Governor Tom Ridge, approved in public referenda in 2005, and continues to receive overwhelming public support today. This program benefits Pennsylvanians through flood protections and stream improvements, abandoned mine cleanups, farmland preservation, and park and recreation opportunities.

The lawn fertilizer bill — SB 251 — would modernize how fertilizer is regulated and introduce standards to the lawn care industry. A new certification program would ensure professionals use proper fertilizer application rates and give consumers confidence that their lawns are cared for by trained professionals providing professional grade services.

Pennsylvania’s policy leaders have ignored water pollution issues for too long and we’re now threatened with harsh penalties from federal regulators if we don’t get our act together. Ignoring this any longer will only hurt our farmers, small towns, and public health. The legislature can make a down payment on its $325 million funding hole by passing the bipartisan legislation sitting on their desks. The future vibrancy of our water, agriculture, and economy is at stake.

Renee Reber is the campaign manager for watershed advocacy for PennFuture, an environmental advocacy organization with 5 offices across Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: PA's farmers, municipalities pay for legislature’s inaction on clean water