Pennsylvania's effort to write a more robust Bay cleanup strategy was launched last week in a packed hotel auditorium where more than 200 people gathered to offer their initial thoughts about what a new — and more implementable — plan would look like.
The state is so far behind its Bay cleanup obligations that it is jeopardizing Chesapeake restoration efforts as a whole. All states in the Bay drainage have to write new Watershed Implementation Plans in the next year and a half to guide cleanup their efforts through the 2025 cleanup deadline, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has singled out Pennsylvania’s plan-writing process for increased scrutiny because of its shortfall.
“The challenge is great, but we can do it together,” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell told the gathering, noting that efforts to clean the Bay will also benefit state waterways.
It will be a challenge. According to the EPA’s most recent review, Pennsylvania needs to control 34 million pounds of nitrogen runoff from 2016 through 2025 — about 70 percent of the total remaining nitrogen reduction for the entire Bay watershed.
Nutrient pollution spurs algae blooms in the Bay that clouds the water, blocking sunlight from critical underwater grass beds. When the algae die, they deplete water of the oxygen needed by fish, crabs and other species.
Because of its gaping shortfall, the EPA recently warned state officials in a letter that the agency was ramping up oversight of Pennsylvania’s cleanup efforts and could take further actions if the state doesn’t come up with a viable cleanup plan, which outlines beefed-up regulations and new funding, in the next 18 months.
“I think everyone in the room is aware of the consequences of us not meeting our obligations,” McDonnell said. Those consequences could include more EPA inspections of farms and municipal stormwater systems, assigning specific nutrient reductions for large-scale animal feeding operations and stormwater dischargers, or forcing wastewater treatment plants to make additional upgrades, among other actions.
State officials anticipate — at least for now — that 80 percent of the needed nitrogen reduction will come from the more than 33,000 farms in the Chesapeake basin, which they acknowledge will be a challenge.
“I worry every day about the 80 percent and the pressure on agriculture to get this done,” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in an interview.
He said more of the nutrient reduction responsibility may ultimately have to be shifted to other sources. But that won’t happen unless the agricultural sector can show that farmers are stepping up.
As part of that, many county conservation districts, along with state agencies, have ramped up farm inspections since last fall to check that farmers have required conservation plans — and ultimately, are implementing them. That effort is critical, Redding said, to showing others that the agricultural sector is addressing its challenge.
“You can’t have an intelligent conversation about changing [the 80 percent number] until you really get folks who have a current obligation to do the plan,” Redding said.
But it’s a massive job, Redding said, noting that Lancaster County alone has 5,500 farms. Still, he added, farmers are beginning to accept the oversight, noting that complaints about the increased farm inspections have been fewer than expected.
“There hasn’t been hostility to that,” Redding said. “I’ve had one phone call out of the 1,194 visits that the farmer was really pushing back on why this is happening.”
A key issue will be funding any program. The EPA, in its letter, said the state needs to show how it will come up with the funds needed to implement the updated Bay cleanup plan.
Gov. Tom Wolf has called for $45 million in increased funding over the next three years to help support Bay efforts, but that’s far below what’s needed. EPA officials have estimated the state needs to increase just its agricultural cost-share program by between $50 million to $80 million a year.
McDonnell said the governor’s proposal was only a “down payment.” The legislature is considering several proposals that could generate more money for clean water projects, but their future is uncertain and they are unlikely to be part of the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Funding for state environmental programs has declined over the last decade, and budget deadlocks between the legislature and the governor in recent years have made the situation even worse.
In fact, Cindy Dunn, secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said ensuring that the General Assembly comes up with additional funding will be a critical part of ensuring that any new plan becomes reality.
“Even as we sit here, across the river important decisions are going to be made that will affect our ability to carry out the aspirations of today,” Dunn said, referring to the ongoing General Assembly session in Harrisburg.
Leaders emphasized that while the need to meet Bay cleanup goals is driving action, state water quality will benefit from the work. “This is a clean local water plan for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” McDonnell said.
Indeed, Dunn said the state has enough woes of its own so that water quality conversations “don’t have to include the words Chesapeake Bay to be effective.”
Pennsylvania doesn’t touch the Bay, but half of the state, including all or parts of 43 of the state’s 67 counties, drains into the Chesapeake, primarily down the Susquehanna River.
“Tragically, on some of the hottest days of the summer, after a rainstorm, we have to close beaches at parks because the E. coli levels are too high.”
About 240 people gathered to share ideas at the June 5 event, more than had attended any meetings during the development of earlier Bay cleanup plans developed in 2010 and 2011, which many considered a top-down exercise that resulted in unrealistic plans.
Repeatedly, officials emphasized that the new plans had to be, in McDonnell’s words, “realistic and achievable and gets us where we ultimately need to go, which is cleaning up local water quality.”
The meeting drew representatives for agriculture, local government officials, conservation districts, watershed groups and others to present ideas — the type of inclusion state officials had hoped to see. So many people wanted to be part of the process that organizers had to turn away several requests to register, said Veronica Kasi, coordinator of the DEP’s Chesapeake Bay Office.
They met in small groups to discuss topics as varied as funding, roadside drainage management, local goal setting, citizen science, messaging and new approaches to riparian forest buffers.
McDonnell said that participation by “everyone who’s partnered with us” on the plan will been needed to make it a reality.
“Sometimes, I walk into a room and conversation shuts down,” he said. “So engaging with conservation districts and engaging with some of the ag associations is essential in getting this done. The encouraging thing to me is that they’ve wanted to be actively engaged as a partner.”