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Clean Water Advocacy Forges Ahead Despite Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has left its impact on all of us and continues to raise uncertainty at every corner, including in our clean water advocacy. Every year, in the spring, our clean water advocates from across the state travel to Harrisburg to educate elected officials on the importance of clean water. 

This spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we acted quickly with our partners to adapt the day-long event into a new socially distanced way of doing clean water advocacy. We created the first ever PA Clean Water Week and moved our meeting with legislators from the Capitol to the virtual, which now has become the norm.  

We also looked to the first week of October to schedule an in-person Harrisburg event. However, six months later the pandemic still ensues. It turned out to be a good thing that we were already planning the first ever Fall Clean Water Education Day, because the General Assembly has to pass a fall supplemental budget. The “annual” budget passed by the General Assembly in June was for 5 months, allowing time for the state to react to the unfolding pandemic and its economic implications. 

Pennsylvania is facing a nearly $5 billion revenue gap from last year and state legislators must pass a budget by the end of November to carry out this year’s budget, which ends in June. With such a budget deficit, our clean water funding is in danger of serious cuts.  

Last week the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, the Choose Clean Water Coalition, and partner organizations from western Pennsylvania met with our state legislators to talk about the importance of keeping funding for clean water in the Fall 2020 Supplemental Budget. In addition, we sent a letter with 38 signatories to Governor Wolf last week asking him to protect our clean water funding this fall. 

Two years ago, clean water advocates agreed on three priorities for clean water funding.

  1. Funding for the state’s Natural Resources Agencies, such as DEP and DCNR
  2. Funding for the Interstate River Basin Commissions, such as DRBC and SRBC
  3. A Dedicated Source of Funding for Clean Water 

Funding for the state’s Natural Resources Agencies

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) are tasked with several important roles related to clean water. Unfortunately, over the past couple decades they have witnessed significant budget cuts that impact their capacity. Since 2002, state funding for the DEP has been cut by nearly 40 percent, leading to a reduction of staff by 30 percent. And, General Fund support for DCNR has been slashed over the last 15 years, declining from $108.8 million in 2002-03 to a low of $14.5 million in 2014-15.

DEP is responsible for permitting activities that protect public health, such as drinking water and wastewater facilities. DEP is also responsible for permitting activities that may cause harm to our waterways, such as stormwater and construction site runoff. DEP also administers state and federal grant programs that put projects that protect our streams, such as the Environmental Stewardship Fund and Section 319 grants. Funding for DEP is essential for public health and clean water. 

DCNR oversees hundreds of programs and parks, greenways, open space, and natural areas, all which benefit our rivers and streams. Yet last year, the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation estimated that DCNR has a $1 billion infrastructure backlog due to a lack of state funding. 

Funding for DCNR is critical to the conservation of our waterways. Our public lands provide vast forested landscapes and natural infrastructure that benefit water quality. At its facilities, DCNR operates wastewater treatment systems as well as stormwater infrastructure. DCNR also administers the state’s riparian forested buffer program for streamside trees.

Funding for the Interstate River Basin Commissions

Pennsylvania is part of five Interstate Basin Commissions:

  • Delaware River Basin Commission 
  • Susquehanna River Basin Commission
  • Interstate Commission for the Potomac River Basin
  • Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission
  • Great Lakes Commission

River Basin Commissions are agencies formed by interstate compact to serve state and federal government agencies that coordinate interstate waterway planning and management. The authority of each River Basin Commission varies but each may be responsible for overseeing water quality, flood control, wildlife, water flow, water withdrawals, aquatic flora, recreation, navigation, and industrial runoff in their respective basin. The health and prosperity of each river basin and its inhabitants relies on strong participation and supportive funding of member states in each River Basin Commission.

A Dedicated Source of Funding for Clean Water

The three leading sources of pollution into Pennsylvania’s waterways are (in descending order): runoff from agricultural lands, acid mine drainage from legacy coal mining, and stormwater runoff from developed surfaces. Because the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting system, established a mechanism for reducing pollution coming from industry and other types of facilities, much of the pollution that impacts our waterways is coming from nonpoint source pollution. To clean up this type of pollution, we need to put practices in place that keep the runoff from reaching our streams. 

A dedicated source of funding established for clean water projects would help farmers, local governments, conservation organizations, and others working across the Commonwealth to clean up our waterways and fund the projects necessary to do the job. Furthermore, the planning, design, construction, and long-term maintenance of clean water projects create and sustain employment opportunities.
The Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program

In September 2020, Senator Yaw introduced SB 1272, the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program, or ACAP for short. This bill would provide funding assistance directly to farmers or landowners to implement conservation practices that protect or improve our waterways. ACAP would be overseen by the State Conservation Commission, however, decisions on funding projects and the application process would be handled at the local level by the County Conservation Districts. The ACAP program would provide funding to farmers statewide and funding to the counties would be proportional to the agricultural footprint of a county. The more farms, the more livestock and cropland, and the more impaired streams from agricultural sources, the more money a county would receive. 

The passage of ACAP is critical to improving our rivers and streams because it addresses Pennsylvania’s leading source of stream impairment. Currently, ACAP sits in the Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee and could make it to a vote in the full Senate this fall. SB 1272 proposes to create a program which is local, supported by farmers, and puts funding directly in the hands of farmers. 

Click here to learn more and watch videos of two Pennsylvanian farmers reflecting on the changing the legacy of farming and how the proposed Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program would help farmers steward the land and water and provide economic benefits.

Fertilizer Legislation

In addition to advocating for clean water funding in the budget, PennFuture is working to see SB 915 passed this fall. This bill would establish limits on fertilizers applied to grassy areas, such as lawns and turf. Establishing such limits would improve the health of our rivers and streams. The ground can only hold a limited amount of nutrients, or fertilizers. When grass is overfertilized beyond what can be absorbed by the soil, the excess will wash off into waterways or move down into the groundwater. Over 2,600 miles of the Commonwealth’s streams are impaired due to excess nutrients.   

Excess nutrients fuel plant and algae growth in our streams. When the algae die they can deplete the oxygen available to other life in the waterways, like fish and macroinvertebrates. Excess algae can also cloud the water, reducing the sunlight available to important vegetation that provide food, cover, and habitat for aquatic life. 

If passed, SB 915 will:

  1. Create a level playing field for fertilizer companies across the state and protect local waters, moving towards one standard across the region and providing regional companies with similar market requirements to those in neighboring states.
  2. Limit how much nitrogen and phosphorus are applied to turf (grass).
  3. Establish a professional fertilizer applicator certification program, similar to pesticide applicators, that will ensure that professionals apply fertilizers at the proper rates, as established in this bill. 
  4. Develop an Agricultural and Homeowner Education Program to educate nonprofessional applicators on the proper rate of applying fertilizers. 

Right now, this bill sits in the House Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, which is led by a new chair, Representative Keller, from Perry County. It passed the Senate in late spring. With strong support behind the bill from many stakeholders, we hope to see this bill passed this fall. 

As you can see, there is no shortage of clean water advocacy needed this fall. Please stay tuned to our website, emails, and social media for updates on what you can do to help protect our waters.

Right now, you can follow this link asking your state Representative to pass SB 915 and improve our waterways from excess nutrient pollution. 

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