Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is inviting public comment on the most-recent Draft Integrated Water Quality Report (IWQR). As more waterways are evaluated, the report reveals that the state of our water resources is increasingly bleak.
In accordance with the federal Clean Water Act, every two years, DEP updates the IWQR with the latest data on water quality from across the state. Between 2020 and 2022, the condition of 13 percent of the Commonwealth’s 86,600 miles of streams were assessed, bringing the total number of surveyed waterways to 99 percent and 97 percent of public lakes.
The draft 2022 IWQR finds 33 percent of Pennsylvania’s stream miles are impaired. That’s a step backward from 30 percent in the 2020 IWQR. A body of water is considered “impaired” if monitoring data show the stream, river or lake fails to meet one or more water quality standards.
If a stream or lake is determined to be impaired, in most cases, the DEP is required by the federal Clean Water Act to establish clean up plans, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for pollutants that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards.
Across the state, the top three sources of water pollution remain the same: acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines, agriculture, and stormwater runoff from developed areas. Based on this report’s newly assessed streams, acid mine drainage has replaced agriculture as the dominant source of pollution.
The health of our rivers, streams, and lakes are assessed for four different categories of use: aquatic life, recreation, fish consumption, and public drinking water supply. Looking at all these uses, the IWQR shows that Pennsylvania is a state of water quality extremes.
Southeast Pennsylvania has some of the highest percentage of polluted waterways. Nearly all the streams in Philadelphia and Delaware counties are impaired at 97 and 94 percent, respectively. These streams are highly modified and impacted by stormwater pollution, industrial waste, and combined sewer overflows. Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks counties make the top 10 list for percent impaired. To the southwest, Allegheny county, home to Pennsylvania’s second largest city, has similar water quality impacts, and is not far behind with over 69 percent of streams impaired, or 915 stream miles.
Counties with the largest number of miles impaired contend with entirely different sources of pollution. Lancaster County has the most miles of impairment at 1,438 stream miles, or 89 percent, largely from widespread agricultural runoff. While in Elk County, the IWQR counts 1,126 miles of impaired streams (68 percent), caused largely by acid mine drainage, reaching the second highest number of impaired miles in a county.
A portion of northwest Pennsylvania is part of the Lake Erie Watershed with three other states and Canada. In Pennsylvania’s portion, nearly half (48%) of all stream miles are impaired, largely impacted by a mixture of both urban and agricultural runoff. Lake Erie itself remains impaired for recreation and fish consumption. More specifically, the fish consumption advisory in place for Presque Isle Bay is due to industrial polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) pollution.
However, not all of Pennsylvania’s waterways suffer from pollution. In fact, some of the Commonwealth’s most-pristine waterways are found in the Poconos. In Wayne, Monroe and Pike counties, out of 3,642 total stream miles, only 815 miles are considered impaired (22 percent).
But, it’s the home county of Elk State Forest that wins the ultimate water quality prize. Cameron County has 21 miles of impaired streams (3 percent), the smallest concentration in the state.
The IWQR contains some good news. Since 2004, about 920 miles of streams and 28,000 acres of public lakes have been effectively restored, showing that progress is possible. Since 2020 alone, 120 stream miles were found to be no longer impaired by pollution.
Make your voice heard on water quality!
The 2022 IWQR is open for public comment with comments accepted until March 1. Submit a comment through the DEP eComment system or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include your name and address.
It is essential for the public to participate when there are rule-making comment opportunities such as this. Public comments strengthen regulations, create a comprehensive and accurate record, and support an appropriate and informed decision-making process. Especially important in comments on the IWQR are perspectives of local knowledge and experience with waters where you may agree or disagree with what the report says about the status of local waterways.
Written public comments can be as short or in-depth as the submitter chooses, but here are a few tips and techniques from PennFuture that can help make comments effective:
Use specific examples and highlight how the regulations could impact you, your family, your community, and the natural resources you love.
The IWQR is presented online as an interactive “story map,” and here are some things you can expect to find when you visit the IWQR:
Regarding stream health, key areas of interest in the IWQR include the changes between 2020 and 2022, the list of impairments known in the Clean Water Act as the 303(d) list, and what streams are prioritized for development of aTMDL or TMDL alternative. Most of the stream data can be viewed in map, table, or chart format.
Additionally, the IWQR contains the 305(b) list that describes the overall status of our streams and the regulatory programs that Pennsylvania has in place to address poor water quality, such as agricultural and stormwater permitting programs.
DEP has provided additional information on statewide or regional restoration programs, Pennsylvania’s Climate Action Plan, and data from statewide water quality monitoring sites for phosphorus, nitrogen, sediment, aluminum, and chloride.
PennFuture will also be submitting comments on the 2022 IWQR. If you’d like to support our efforts in protecting the water quality of the Commonwealth, please become a member today.