The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called Tuesday for a major boost in federal funding to help Pennsylvania jump-start its lagging Bay cleanup efforts, arguing that the Keystone State could make significant progress with a targeted push to reduce farm pollution in just five heavily agricultural counties.

The Annapolis-based environmental group appealed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for “an initial, immediate commitment of $20 million” to help farmers in Lancaster, York, Franklin, Cumberland and Adams counties design and pay for conservation practices aimed at reducing nutrient and sediment pollution.

That’s more than USDA spent on farm conservation last year in all 42 Pennsylvania counties in the Bay watershed, by one report. It’s nowhere near enough, foundation leaders acknowledged, to pay for everything the state needs to do to meet its obligations under the federally mandated Bay restoration plan. But it would be a big down payment, they said. And without that kind of federal help, they warned that the cash-strapped state might never catch up.

“If this does not happen,” CBF President Will Baker said, “the commonwealth will have failed to meet its commitment to the Clean Water Blueprint, water quality in Pennsylvania will suffer and the Bay will not be saved.”

The foundation spoke out in a week when state-mandated inspections of farms in the Bay watershed finally began, after months of dickering over one of the first steps in the Wolf administration’s plan to “reboot” Pennsylvania’s Bay restoration efforts.

Staff with the Lancaster County conservation district were scheduled to start paying calls on the 300 farms they are to inspect this year in their heavily agricultural community. The Department of Environmental Protection announced Tuesday that 29 conservation districts in all have agreed to help check 10 percent annually of the 33,000 farms in the state’s portion of the Bay watershed to see if they have legally required plans for controlling erosion and managing animal manure or other fertilizer.

But nine other conservation districts — including York and Franklin, two of the CBF’s priority counties — have refused to participate, in large part because they were uncomfortable with switching roles from offering farmers technical help to being seen as environmental enforcers. The DEP has said that its staff will handle farm inspections in those counties, as well as in the handful of others that have little land in the Bay watershed. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been pressing Pennsylvania to step up its Bay cleanup efforts, has talked with the state about helping with inspections, though a spokesman said Tuesday that it was premature to say if that might occur.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, meanwhile, was scheduled to speak over the telephone this week with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s press secretary, said he did not know what topics the two would cover, but McCarthy wrote Wolf in July saying that she was “concerned by the lack of investment in, and slow progress on,” the state’s reboot plan since it was unveiled in January.

In the letter, the EPA administrator said she wanted to confer with Wolf in advance of the annual meeting of the Bay Program’s Executive Council, so she could report to the assembled state and federal leaders that “Pennsylvania is doing everything possible to restore and accelerate implementation of the Commonwealth’s Bay commitments.” That meeting is set for Oct. 4 in Northern Virginia.

An EPA review earlier this year found that while the multi-state restoration effort has made progress, it’s falling short of its nitrogen pollution reduction target for next year, chiefly because of Pennsylvania. The state is responsible for 86 percent of the gap, or roughly 16 million pounds, according to the Bay Foundation. Nearly 70 percent of all nitrogen reductions from now to 2025 have to come from Pennsylvania, the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program has estimated.

The EPA calculated that Pennsylvania would need to double the amount of farmland it put under nutrient management last year and increase by sevenfold the amount of land put in streamside buffers to get back on track. But federal officials said the state lacked programs or policies to achieve either.

The Bay Foundation released a white paper on Tuesday that it said could get the state headed in the right direction. The group called for focusing increased efforts on the five south-central counties that it said collectively are the leading source of nitrogen pollution in the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake’s largest tributary.

The water quality in more than 1,400 miles of rivers and streams in those counties is impaired by farm pollution, according to Harry Campbell, executive director of the foundation’s Pennsylvania office.  Great progress could be made, the group said, by getting more farmers to embrace conservation practices such as planting winter cover crops, installing forested stream buffers and building storage facilities for animal manure.

Chris Thompson, manager of the Lancaster County conservation district, noted that many farmers have asked for help writing conservation plans and carrying them out. But his and other conservation districts have limited staff and a backlog of requests for their help.

Lancaster has more farms than any other Pennsylvania county, and is home to much of the state’s Amish population. While the Amish have traditionally been loath to deal with government, Thompson said that when he met with them recently, they expressed a willingness to do their part. But, he noted, milk prices are at all-time lows, squeezing dairy farmers.

There’s also not enough federal funding to underwrite all of the projects farmers have proposed. Thompson said that some farmers are “on the fence” about adopting conservation practices. The state’s “reboot” plan could prompt them to act, he added, but “if there are no funds to do it, it’s going to fail.” 

“Farmers want to reduce pollution,” added the CBF’s Campbell, “but [for] many, the only way they can do it is with financial help. Sadly, many are turned away.”

Foundation officials said that conservation practices aimed at reducing nitrogen runoff from farms would also help to reduce the two other key Bay pollutants, phosphorus and sediment. And they argued that ramping up spending for restoration would yield economic benefits by boosting such businesses as seed companies, tree nurseries and fencing installers.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and Republican-dominated legislature have sparred repeatedly over the budget, and no significant moves have been made yet to reverse past cuts in state funding for environmental programs. The CBF’s Baker said cleanup progress in Pennsylvania will require increased funding and effort from local as well as state government, but he singled out the USDA for attention, saying a $20 million boost would make good on federal agriculture officials’ “oft-stated promise” to be a partner in the Bay restoration.

Federal financial help for farmers to adopt conservation practices has declined across the Bay region in recent years. By one report earlier this year from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the amount of financial assistance provided to Pennsylvania went from $28 million in 2010 to $15 million last year. According to figures released Friday by the NRCS, funds “invested” in Pennsylvania went from a high of nearly $47 million in 2012 to $31 million last year. An NRCS spokesman could not immediately explain the difference in figures.

While the USDA has indicated that Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed is a conservation priority for the department, it has declined to target high impact areas for ramped-up efforts, as the CBF has recommended — something that has frustrated state officials as well. “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority,” acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said at a meeting last week of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative advisory panel that met in Lancaster.

An NRCS spokesman did not directly respond to the Bay Foundation’s call for a $20 million boost in funding directed at the five Pennsylvania counties. But the spokesman said that the NRCS has spent a total of $267 million in Pennsylvania from 2009 through 2015. Over the same period, he said, nutrient and sediment loads to the Bay have declined, with the agriculture sector accounting for the majority of phosphorus and sediment reductions. He did not mention nitrogen, the state’s biggest shortcoming in achieving its Bay cleanup obligations.

“USDA looks forward to continuing work with partners in Pennsylvania and beyond to fund this important work,” the NRCS spokesman concluded.

Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship contributed to this story.