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Stakeholders Making Progress on Chesapeake Bay Goals, but Legislature Still Lagging

On July 28th, the Chesapeake Bay State Team, led by the Secretaries of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and the Department of Agriculture (PDA), met to hear updates on the progress on the implementation of the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) and what’s coming next. 

In short, a lot of work is being done by the DEP and other state agencies, as well as the County Action Teams, to get  Pennsylvania on track to meet its goals set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). After years of lackluster planning and implementation, Pennsylvania and the other Bay states should celebrate the huge strides that are underway over the last two years since the completion of the Phase 3 WIP. 

However, there is one critical area with few successes to report: the legislature’s progress to provide adequate funding to meet our clean water goals. 

Areas of Progress

  • Countywide Action Plans

The Phase 3 WIP breaks up watershed restoration into county planning and implementation efforts, called County Action Plans. The 43 counties in the watershed were divided into two phases, depending on how much nitrogen and phosphorus they contribute to our streams. The eight Phase 1 counties are already implementing their plans and reporting progress back to DEP. The remaining Phase 2 counties are grouped into 10 clusters with plans due to DEP by the end of September. The local county-level efforts will help to catalyze and report action on the ground and provide DEP with input on what is needed to be successful.   

  • The Rapid Delisting Strategy

The Lancaster Clean Water Partners, working with the Chesapeake Conservancy, put together a data-driven rapid delisting strategy for impaired, or polluted, waters to help prioritize the work being done in Lancaster County, which accounts for 21% of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen reduction goals and 23% for phosphorus. This prioritization strategy is based on how healthy an impaired stream is, existing work within a watershed, and is focused on large landowners. Out of 5,100 farms in the county, the Lancaster CAP prioritizes 1,200 farms which helps technical service providers and other conservation organizations to know where focused efforts could make the biggest impact on local stream health. The delisting strategy could be used in other counties to speed up improvements to local stream health.  

  • Center for Water Quality Excellence

The Phase 3 WIP proposed the creation of a pilot Center for Water Quality Excellence, led by PENNVEST, where municipalities, farmers, and other interested parties could go to learn more about best management practices and funding opportunities. The pilot Center is now open to serve Lancaster and York Counties. If this model proves to be successful, PENNVEST could open other locations to serve additional counties. In addition to providing one-on-one consulting opportunities, the Center will be offering workshops. 

  • Phase 3 WIP Amendment and Milestone Reporting 

At EPA’s request, DEP will submit an amendment to the Phase 3 WIP by the end of the year. The original Phase 3 WIP fell short on its plan to achieve the nitrogen reduction goal. The amendment is expected to include the 34 County Action Plans and the implementation and adjustments that have happened over the past 2 years. DEP pointed out challenges will be included in the document, including the COVID pandemic stalling progress due to the lost of construction season and increased construction costs. In addition, as part of the accountability framework of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, DEP provides milestone reports to EPA for progress and on 2-year commitments. We eagerly await the Phase 3 Amendment and milestone reporting to assess progress toward Pennsylvania’s goals and to see if the state has a complete plan to meet 100% of the nitrogen goal.          

Where progress is still lacking 

Despite all the work being done by the state agencies and partners on the ground, this meeting reaffirmed funding from the legislature remains the main hurdle to overcome. 

We call on the legislature to take swift action on the following policies when they return to Harrisburg in late September.

  • The Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program 

SB 465 would create a new statewide agricultural cost share program providing farmers and landowners with assistance to install conservation practices which benefit clean water and farms. The program would be administered by the State Conservation Commission and local decisions would be made through County Conservation Districts. These investments would prioritize counties where agriculture has a greater impact on stream health.    

  • Growing Greener III 

SB 525 would invest $500 million of the federal American Rescue Plan to reinvigorate the state’s Growing Greener Program that was passed with bipartisan support over 20 years ago. This program supports community-driven work conservation and clean water projects across the state. 

  • The Clean Streams Fund

A cosponsor memo by Senator Yaw calls for $250 million of federal American Rescue Plan money to be directed to a water quality improvement dedicated fund. This funding could help improve stream health that is impacted by nonpoint source runoff, such as agriculture, acid mine drainage, and stormwater runoff. 

  • The Lawn Fertilizer Bill

SB 251 would significantly improve the water quality impacted by nutrient pollution in Pennsylvania by reducing application rates of lawn fertilizer, creating a professional certification program, and standardizing label requirements for lawns, golf courses, and athletic fields. Over 2,600 miles of the Commonwealth’s streams are impaired due to excess nutrients, which is the fifth leading cause of water pollution. 

The countdown to December 31, 2025 grows shorter everyday. The state agencies and counties are doing their part to build the systems and programs to get the job done. It’s far past time for the legislature to step up to the plate. And right now, with  $7 billion in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, there are no longer any excuses remaining to hold off on investing in our state’s clean water resources, which benefit the economy, create and sustain jobs, and improve quality of life and public health. Swift action on the legislation mentioned here would be a good start in the right direction.  

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