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November Snapshot: Chesapeake Bay Clean-Up Efforts

It has been a busy autumn in terms of addressing Pennsylvania’s water quality challenges.

Since the kick-off of the Steering Committee for the Watershed Implementation Plan’s Phase III in early June and the large success of Penn State University’s ‘Ag Progress Days’ in August, stakeholders and voices for clean water across the Commonwealth have provided critical feedback and scores of public comments to the PA Department of Environmental Protection on how and what to address with the Chesapeake Bay clean-up.

In late August, the Wolf administration rolled-out an announcement regarding the first year of the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Inspections Program and wrote about how the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, in partnership with Pennsylvania’s conservation districts, “not only exceeded federal expectations for numbers of acres inspected, but also found that a majority of farms are complying with state planning requirements.” The executive branch agencies working on the current Chesapeake Bay clean-up efforts should be lauded for their 60 percent farm inspection completion rate, but this means about 40 percent of the Keystone State’s 60,000 farms have yet to be inspected. This means that more than three million acres of agriculture land has gone the last year without ascertaining whether these properties are compliant with conservation and maintenance requirements. With yet another shaky and delayed state budget this year – at times agriculture preservation and conservation dollars in jeopardy – these missed opportunities underscore the importance of increased staffing and funding in our state agencies.

Through September and October, the WIP Steering Committee met regularly to start to answer the larger questions and establish the stage for the development of the Watershed Implementation Plan. Key workgroups on funding, agriculture, wastewater, stormwater, forestry, and local area goals, priorities, and practices have begun to meet in earnest. As Pennsylvania’s WIP Steering Committee has begun to dig deeper to address current water quality challenges, a few members reflected on the experience of Phases I & II. Chief among these reflections were that Pennsylvania policymakers, in Phase III, should break down the larger target numbers of the EPA expectations to a more local, and tangible level. It was also recommended that the third phase, helping Pennsylvania meet its TMDL pollution reduction goals by 2025, should ensure that the current local water cleanup efforts be accurately tracked and the data shared with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Perhaps the clearest proposal to keep in mind moving forward is the need to identify the value (economic, cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, etc.) and stacked benefits of cleaning up our local waters. In reports this fall presented at the Susquehanna River Symposium at Bucknell University, hosted by the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, the University of Michigan and Penn State University state that, when we monetize and think in terms of economic value of a natural resource, the Susquehanna River Basin is worth nearly $2 billion annually. Investing in our watershed should not be about the Bay, but instead about restoration and stewardship of our own waters. As an Amish farmer from Lancaster County told me this fall, “Our conservation is not about meeting requirements – it’s all about taking care of our home.” The cost of inaction far outweighs the abundant benefits of Pennsylvania’s renowned outdoor recreation, beverage industry, sustainable agriculture, energy, and forestry, and clean water supply.

What remains to be clear is that Pennsylvania is far behind in meeting its pollution reduction goals for nitrogen, phosphorous, and sedimentation. Thanks to generous help and leadership provided by the University of Maryland, United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), and the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program, Pennsylvania stakeholders, policymakers, and members of the WIP Steering Committee are starting to understand the way forward better. Large-scale and in-depth efforts are underway to collect and analyze data in order to create local water cleanup plans with the greatest possible impacts and it has become a priority of the groups at play to focus on the top load-producing watersheds.

A newly released report entitled “Boots on the Ground” from the Chesapeake Bay Commission further points out the severe need for more technical assistance to farmers implementing best management practices in the Bay watershed – including Pennsylvania – along with increased need for incentives and funding. As 2017 begins to draw to a close, EPA Chesapeake Bay Program staff are starting to determine how Pennsylvania is doing and what actions must – and should – be taken to get the state on track again for 2025. The TMDL mid-point assessment does not look good for Pennsylvania, and that is before we think about other factors inhibiting progress that are knocking on our door: addressing climate change’s effects on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Conowingo Dam issue, the potential impairment of the lower Susquehanna, pipeline infrastructure, and development and forest fragmentation taking place at rapid paces.

And this all brings us back to the age-old problem in Penns Woods: funding. While the state budget dilemma for FY2017-18 has been resolved, albeit four months overdue, state dollars for conservation practices and staffing at our state agencies charged with clean water responsibilities seem to be cut on an annual basis. Members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly have dug in their heels on not investing in and prioritizing Pennsylvania’s clean water and next year’s budget process is likely to be slow coming, as well. 

As this Watershed Implementation Plan process continues to unfold, make sure to take a stand for clean water. Follow our upcoming regular blogs on the WIP, frequent check-ins on the Bay watershed clean-up and upcoming policies we’re pushing. Tell your state and federal legislators we need a strong DEP and EPA. This holiday season, #OptOutside - explore your watershed’s headwaters and plant your holiday trees. Stay tuned.

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