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Updated Climate Change Assessment Reveals Future Pennsylvania Water Troubles

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection last week released the state’s third Climate Change Impacts Assessment, and the update tells us of a warmer future with more rain, floods and landslides than ever experienced in Pennsylvania history.

Heavier and more frequent storms will cause Pennsylvania rivers and streams to swell more frequently. Downstream, greater volumes of sediment will mix with farmland runoff and the pollution-filled stormwater of surrounding cities and towns, exacerbating water concerns for miles and miles.  

The impacts will affect our local streams and be noticed far beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. Left unchecked and unprepared, the climate crisis will further heighten the difficulty of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Challenges will be further intensified if regional agricultural trends continue. The assessment predicts a warmer Pennsylvania climate will attract greater investment in livestock farming across the state. In particular, poultry farming may double by 2050. 

Given the unpredictability of severe weather, we must do whatever we can to prepare now. This is no time to back down on long-term investments in green stormwater infrastructure and agricultural best management practices, as well as carbon-reduction policies such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The dozens of Pennsylvania municipalities that collect stormwater fees are already better prepared to fund improvements necessary to adapt to climate change and to meet the state’s legal obligations under the federal Clean Water Act. 

Among those obligations, under the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, regional states agree to Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) pollution goals for across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Pennsylvania is committed to prevent 34 million pounds of nitrogen and 756,000 pounds of phosphorus.

To meet the Chesapeake Bay clean-up goals over the coming decades, the assessment anticipates that Pennsylvania will need to exceed annual nitrogen-reduction targets by another 4 million pounds.

Plus, if projected shifts in livestock production were to come true, think of the impact from all that animal manure. In Lancaster County, for example, nitrogen and phosphorous levels are projected to grow by 38% and 58%, respectively.

Not only do we need to better incentivize agricultural practices that lessen water pollution, such as riparian forested buffers and soil health, we must also react to how climate change will affect these practices. To date, research on how climate change will alter their effectiveness is, according to the assessment, “essentially nonexistent for Pennsylvania”

The release of this year’s assessment update, amid the COVID-19 crisis, understandably may be lost amid the news cycle. Still, the warnings should not be overlooked. Even during a time of crisis, we must not lose vision of the challenges lying ahead if we fail to take climate action. 

As David Wallace-Wells writes in New York Magazine, “The virus is a terrifying harbinger of future pandemics that will be brought about if climate change continues to so deeply destabilize the natural world: scrambling ecosystems, collapsing habitats, rewiring wildlife, and rewriting the rules that have governed all life on this planet for all of human history.”

In Pennsylvania, we need to stay focused.

Recent analysis finds that if the state were to follow Governor Tom Wolf’s proposal and join RGGI, such action would allow Pennsylvania to reduce nearly 10 times the carbon emissions than anticipated under current policies.

Despite that, leaders of the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus are nonetheless asking Wolf to rescind the order, citing the pandemic as their excuse. In addition, certain factions within the General Assembly are in the process of trying to freeze funding that supports local parks, trails, environmental restoration projects, county conservation districts and other projects.

Today’s emergencies do not justify creating more crises for future generations to bear. We must continue to work toward a stable climate. We must continue to prioritize clean water policies, and we must continue to fund programs and projects that protect our natural resources. 

Otherwise, with the release of each impact assessment, we will find ourselves with less time to act and with diminished ability to avoid the worse to come.

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