June 21, 2021

PennFuture Op Ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News

Pennsylvania should invest federal COVID relief funds in clean water projects | Opinion

Pennsylvania might soon benefit from an infusion of more than $7 billion from federal COVID relief funds, in addition to a potential $3 billion projected budget surplus.

In the weeks ahead, it will be incumbent upon state elected officials to determine the best use of this newfound money. Given past priorities and recipients of similar funds, this level of flexibility leaves many rightfully concerned that such a unique moment of opportunity may be squandered.

Instead of falling back on tried-and-failed policies and initiatives, let’s use the money how it’s designed. As mentioned in PennFuture’s “A Green Stimulus and Recovery Platform for Pennsylvania” report, the pandemic has placed a burden on water and wastewater utilities because of massive revenue losses and, as a consequence, much-needed water infrastructure projects have been delayed or abandoned across Pennsylvania.

The COVID relief fund offers a potentially transformational source of funding at a time when our communities are still recovering from the pandemic and wondering how they will ever be able to address long-standing challenges of underfunded infrastructure, environmental degradation and a worsening climate crisis.

We need to invest in solving today’s problems. Now is the time to secure a more sustainable Commonwealth.

Our leaders should start by dedicating a significant share of the COVID relief fund toward clean water initiatives that have proven successful in creating a more thriving and resilient economy. At least $500 million would be wisely spent improving the 25,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams suffering from impaired water quality. Investing in our water resources will in turn support job growth, fuel our state’s vibrant recreation economy, and enhance our water supplies.

The Treasury already made clear that water quality programs meet the intent of the law. After years of under-investment, we can build back better if we expand access to clean drinking water, improve fishing and recreation opportunities through vital wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, and save the economy from future losses by better protecting ourselves from future floods and other extreme weather.

These investments would also achieve the goal of supporting small businesses negatively impacted by the crisis. By cleaning up our rivers and streams and building greater resilience through green infrastructure, we can protect the livelihoods of outfitters, frontline hospitality workers, and others in the once-booming outdoor recreation industry who depend on the health of our water resources.

Outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania creates more than 390,000 local jobs, according to recent studies, generating a total value of $26.9 billion. Estimates from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership found that our recreation sector alone once created as much in federal, state and local tax revenue as the entire pot of relief funding available to the state.

Members of both parties can agree that throughout this past year, our state’s outdoor resources became more valuable than ever. Public use of trails quadrupled as the quarantine encouraged more Pennsylvanians to appreciate the natural splendors of our state. But higher demand also accelerated wear-and-tear on facilities that already suffered from a $1 billion backlog in maintenance, safety and necessary infrastructure.

The state’s Growing Greener grant program would be the perfect vehicle to direct COVID relief funds to conservation and to clean water projects in need of a financial lifeline. Since 1999, Growing Greener has provided critical support to community-driven work that improves and protects clean water resources, open spaces, and recreational pursuits for Pennsylvanians and tourists alike.

Growing Greener was established with bipartisan support in the General Assembly and continues to receive overwhelming public support today. Most recently, a 2020 poll commissioned by Conservation Voters of PA and the Growing Greener Coalitionshowed nearly 90 percent of voters support funding for Pennsylvania’s land, water and wildlife, even during the economic downturn of the pandemic.

In March, Senators John Gordner and Bob Mensch suggested a Growing Greener III program that would direct $500 million of relief funding to support water resources that benefit our farmers, towns and more. In addition, Senators Gene Yaw, Scott Martin and Daniel Laughlin have put forth a plan that would use $250 million to create a Clean Streams Fund. These are welcomed bipartisan suggestions that reflect widely popular support for increasing state investments in clean water.

We ask all members of the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf to stand with voters to protect our waterways. Dedicated funding is needed to improve our water resources, reinvigorate our communities, and invest in the long-term prosperity of our Commonwealth.

It’s not only a smart decision, it’s the right thing to do.

Ezra Thrush is the Senior Director for Government Affairs for PennFuture. He writes from Harrisburg.