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Part I: A Primer on Pennsylvania’s Water Crisis - Challenges Impacting Every Community

This primer is Part 1 in a two part series, with a sidebar providing a brief history of Pennsylvania’s policy fight for clean water, a description of the water pollution challenges impacting Pennsylvanians, and the potential solutions toward providing clean water for all. For a deeper dive into our state’s storied water pollution policy history, click here.

When astronomers discover planets orbiting far-off stars, they assess whether or not that world could support life by determining if water is present. Their assumption, based on our own experience here on Earth, is that water is the basis of all life. It is our most precious natural resource. It is our most visceral connection to the natural world.

Yet, one of Pennsylvania’s great historic struggles is providing every citizen access to clean water for drinking, recreation, farming, and industry. It’s an unfortunate story of the Commonwealth turning a blind eye to pollution for the benefit of industry, failing to lead in times of crisis, and ignoring water pollution problems for so long, they’re almost intractable.

That’s not to say Pennsylvania hasn’t had successes. For more than a century, Pennsylvania’s communities and policymakers have worked to clean up our streams and rivers, resulting in significant policy wins and strong regulations. But the struggle for clean water continues today in every county, municipality, and city.

Pennsylvania’s Growing Water Crisis

This century-long history of working towards policy that protects our waterways from pollution while we also invest in the restoration of our waterways has shown much progress. Culm piles have been reclaimed, many industrial discharges have been reduced, and billions of dollars have been invested in wastewater treatment, sewage systems, and stormwater controls. 

Nonetheless, Pennsylvania is facing a growing water crisis from a mix of legacy water pollution sources and emerging pollutants and industrial activity. From lead-contaminated drinking water in Pittsburgh, to sick and dying fish in the Susquehanna, to rainwater runoff contaminated with industrial pollutants in the Delaware, our rivers and streams are stressed and overburdened, with many showing signs of ecological decline. 

In fact, after a century of water pollution policies, more than 20,000 miles of Commonwealth streams still fail to meet the Clean Water Act’s goals of being fishable and swimmable. There remains up to $15 billion in acid mine drainage cleanup across the state. It’s estimated that there are more than 200,000 orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells, potentially contaminating ground water. Pennsylvania has significantly failed to meet its pollution reduction goals set by the EPA in the Susquehanna River watershed, with more than 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s farmers in the watershed failing to meet basic pollution-reduction planning requirements. 

The toughest pollution problems remain, and they grow by the day. Unfortunately, there’s no single villain. All of us contribute to water pollution. We’ve neglected our drinking water pipes, paved over our watersheds, loaded tons of manure and fertilizer on our farm fields, allowed pollution laws to go unenforced, allowed new industries like unconventional gas drilling to go under-regulated, failed to prevent development on tree-lined stream banks, failed to eliminate acid mine drainage, dumped pharmaceuticals down the toilet or in our streams?, and starved the government agencies charged with protecting our water of adequate financial, technical and professional resources. Pollution problemsare widespread and expensive to address.

Challenges Impacting Our Major Watersheds

All of our great river basins, the Allegheny, Delaware, Susquehanna, and Lake Erie, face similar threats. Old sewer pipes throughout Pennsylvania cities carry both stormwater and sewage, and when it rains, raw sewage ends up in the citys’ rivers. As a result, places like the lower Delaware River and its estuary are contaminated with toxic chemicals. The river has a temporary reprieve from further damage through a “moratorium” on gas drilling currently in place through the Delaware River Basin Commission, and the horror of the so-called Energy Hub at the Port of Philadelphia seems stopped for now.  But both defenses can change at any moment.

There is no better example of the monumental challenges we face in the work to reduce water pollution in all of our rivers than the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna watershed drains rainwater that falls on 27,500 square miles of Pennsylvania cities, suburbs, highways, forests and farms, and receives wastewater from thousands of municipal and industrial treatment plants. Ultimately, these pollutants are harming fish and wildlife, reducing recreational opportunities, and making their way into the Chesapeake Bay. 

For example, the middle and lower parts of the river were once renowned for its bass fishery, which attracted anglers from near and far. But beginning in 2005, the bass population began to crash. Young fish were not surviving and many that did were sick and dying. Adult fish reproductive systems showed characteristics of both sexes. 
Several years of study turned up few surprises. The river is polluted with nutrients, sediment, agricultural chemicals and drugs. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, angler organizations and environmental groups formally asked the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to declare the river “impaired” so that a specific cleanup plan could be developed to reduce the pollution. DEP issued a very limited impairment determination for only four miles of the river that did not address the major sources of the river’s pollution. 

Pennsylvania is also legally required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to meet specific reductions of nutrient and sediment pollution going into the Susquehanna under the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. By far, the largest source of nutrient pollution - nitrogen and phosphorous - and sediment pollution come from agriculture, and many agricultural operations have not invested in adequate pollution control practices. 

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is significantly behind in meeting the required pollution reductions, most of which must come from agriculture and local controls on stormwater runoff from developed areas. Recently, the EPA sent a letter to DEP warning the state that if it does not come up with an adequately funded, viable plan to meet the reduction goals, it will impose penalties and its own cleanup plan. 

The EPA estimates that Pennsylvania will have to spend between $50 million and $80 million per year to help farmers reduce pollution and between $200 to $300 million per year overall to address these challenges. But Pennsylvania has actually reduced its spending on programs to aid farm pollution control by about $20 million since 2014.

Can Pennsylvania Keep Drinking Water Safe?

Nothing ties us more intimately to our water resources than the water that comes out of our taps. We expect that the water delivered to our homes by water companies and municipal water authorities will be safe for drinking. But increasingly, that expectation is not being met. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Allentown, and other Pennsylvania towns and cities are grappling with lead-contaminated water caused by ancient lead-based water pipes.

Alarmingly, DEP’s program to ensure safe drinking water is woefully understaffed. The program is so underfunded that the federal EPA notified Pennsylvania that the inability of inspectors to adequately oversee drinking water systems and enforce the law poses “serious public health implications.” An EPA review found that key information about lead and copper levels in drinking water systems was missing from DEP inspection files. The situation is so bad, that EPA threatened to take away the state’s authority to run the clean drinking water program.

The situation is no better in places like Montgomery and Bucks Counties, where communities near military bases have been poisoned by Perfluorooctanoic Acids (PFOS and PFOA’s), chemicals used in firefighting foams. The chemicals infiltrated water wells near the military bases the foams were used and have led to contamination levels up to 15 times the federal limit, which can cause cancer, liver disorders, and other life threatening diseases.

Tomorrow, Part II of this series will look at potential solutions and policy challenges to addressing Pennsylvania’s water crisis.

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