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Part II: A Primer on Pennsylvania’s Water Crisis - Solutions

This is Part II in a series 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. Click here to read Part I. For a deeper dive into our state’s history of water pollution challenges, click here.

Luzerne County communities are banding together to solve an expensive problem – uncontrolled stormwater pollution of local streams and the Susquehanna River. The substantial costs of installing stormwater controls, separating stormwater pipes from sewer pipes, and adopting the best ways to minimize stormwater pollution, like street sweeping, will be shared among 37 municipalities, lowering the expenses for the taxpayers. It will be funded by a stormwater fee assessed on each property of between $3.00 and $4.50 per month.

In Pennsylvania’s famously fractured local government system, it’s a rare, great example of inter-governmental cooperation. You’d think that the local officials involved would be boasting to taxpayers about how they can cooperatively clean up local waterways at reduced cost. Instead, they complained. One local official said, “The public has to understand this is another unfunded mandate, and either their municipality is going to do it or the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority.” This is simply not true.

Clean Water is Not an Unfunded Mandate

Clean water is not an unfunded mandate and this pervasive myth needs to end. Under Pennsylvania law and our state constitution, keeping our water clean is the responsibility of state and local government. Clean water is essential for health, industry and agriculture. But, let’s be honest. Clean water is not free. It costs money to protect clean water, and it costs even more to clean up polluted water. That money has to come from somewhere. If we want clean water, we will have to pay for it.

The bad news is that the cleanup costs are daunting. Here are some examples:

  • Susquehanna River/Chesapeake Bay cleanup - $647 million a year;
  • Replace Pittsburgh’s lead water pipes - $411 million;
  • Clean up streams polluted by coal mining - $ 1 billion;
  • Eliminate combined sewer overflows statewide - $28 billion.

The good news is that, like the innovative, cooperative effort in Luzerne County and similar projects in other counties, including York and Lancaster, there are solutions that are ready to be implemented that minimize costs, and there are proposed solutions that would provide the resources to tackle our water protection and cleanup challenges.

Federal Investment is Critical

While it’s the duty of state and local governments to address water pollution challenges, the federal government also plays a role. In particular, the federal government has an obligation to address pollution challenges that cross state boundaries, such as those impacting many of our watersheds, through federal oversight and adequate funding.

Yet, federal policymakers have not made it easy on the states by continually cutting or underfunding key water pollution programs. For example, Congress must fully fund the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Chesapeake Bay Program. The EPA and Bay Program provide about $140 million a year to Pennsylvania farmers and municipalities to finance water pollution control projects. The Trump administration has proposed slashing the EPA budget by 30 percent and eliminating the Chesapeake Bay Program. These funding cuts would be devastating to the Susquehanna River cleanup effort, just as the federal Bay pollution limits are starting to show water quality improvements.

Furthermore, the Congress could play a significant role in helping clean up acid mine drainage sites by passing the RECLAIM Act (H.R. 1731), which would accelerate the disbursement of $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund over five years. For Pennsylvania, this would mean more than $60 million in additional funding for mine reclamation each year for five years – an enormous increase in projects that would clean up water pollution as well as provide local economic benefits.

State Policymakers Need to Aggressively Lead on Eliminating Water Pollution

For its part, the Pennsylvania legislature has to really step up and lead. For too long, policymakers have cut water pollution programs – and environmental programs in general. As a result, water programs are run understaffed, without many inspectors, and little funds to provide reasonable oversight. 

As such, state policymakers should increase funding to the Department of Environmental Protection so it has the resources to carry out its mission. DEP received $246 million in state funding in 2002. This year, the Governor’s proposed budget earmarks only $152 million. 

The House Budget bill (HB 218) calls for a 10 percent cut to general operations, which funds the agency’s water pollution programs. Years of declining funding have left the agency woefully understaffed to the point where it cannot adequately review permit applications in a timely manner or do the number of inspections of drinking water treatment, wastewater treatment and agricultural operations to ensure compliance with pollution control laws.

But, state lawmakers shouldn’t stop at simply making DEP’s budget whole again. They should also provide more funding for clean water projects across the Commonwealth through dedicated revenue streams, including those to address pollution problems in the Susquehanna River watershed as well as lead, pharmaceutical, and PFOA pollution issues. For example, Governor Wolf’s proposed budget once again included levying a severance tax on Marcellus shale gas drilling - a 6.5 percent tax on gas production would bring about $293 million into state coffers rising to about $500 million by 2020. A portion of that should be dedicated to water pollution control. 

Another way to fund water projects is through a water user fee. Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) has introduced legislation to enact a fee on water users that use more than 10,000 gallons of water per day to create a Clean Water Fund. Such a fee would generate about $245 million a year for clean water projects. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania legislators who are members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission endorsed the concept in a letter to other members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate. 

The General Assembly should also renew the Growing Greener program, which provides grants directly to municipalities, restoration organizations and farmers to do local water quality protection and cleanup projects. Since the $625 million Growing Greener II bond was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2005, funding for Growing Greener has declined by 75 percent. The Growing Greener Coalition has identified the need for $315 million a year for farmland, open space protection, and water restoration and protection projects. 

Local Governments Should View Water Pollution as a Central Challenge

Finally, local governments should adopt policies and implement projects to control polluted runoff, which would in turn help guide farmers who need more information and assistance in complying with pollution control laws and adopting agricultural practices that minimize pollution. 

Municipalities can adopt ordinances that require developers to maintain a vegetated setback from streams for residential and commercial developments. They can also participate in joint projects like the ones in Luzerne, Lancaster and York counties to control pollution in a cost-effective manner and further minimize cost by including “green infrastructure” like rain gardens and constructed wetlands to hold back and filter polluted stormwater. Municipalities can finance clean water projects by charging fees on properties based on the amount of impervious surfaces the properties contain, thus scaling funding to the amount of polluted waters a property creates.

Farmers can adopt a whole range of water-friendly practices such as limiting their use of fertilizers and manure to the amount needed to produce abundant crops, limiting their disturbance of soil when preparing fields, and installing forested buffers between their fields and streams.

The solutions to our water quality problems are there, though they’re certainly not easy. Nonetheless, if we want clean water, we must insist that our federal, state and local officials provide the policies, incentives and resources to get the job done. 

All of us must understand that clean water is not free, and we all must be willing to pay our fair share to ensure that our families and our communities can depend on the safety of the water flowing in our streams and coming out of our taps. 

Continue to follow PennFuture for more information on these and other issues that affect your environment and public health. Get involved, donate today, and take action. Our water depends on it.

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