PA’s ‘reboot’ strategy to improve water quality off to slow start
As state tries to come up with money for cleanup, EPA is threatening to take action unless progress is made
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The Wolf administration’s plan to “reboot” Pennsylvania’s badly lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts could be in need of its own kick-start.
Since unveiling the strategy in January, state environmental leaders have grappled with resistance to their plan for increasing oversight of farms in the watershed. And they have yet to line up major new sources of funding to make good on their pledge to plant more stream buffers and take a host of other actions to improve local and Bay water quality.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, which had briefly withheld nearly $3 million in funds last year until Pennsylvania produced the reboot plan, is warning it may take new steps if the state doesn’t show progress soon.
Veronica Kasi, coordinator of the newly formed Chesapeake Bay office in the state Department of Environmental Protection, said in an interview that it’s still early, but preliminary steps have been taken to carry out the reboot strategy. She said she’s encouraged that it’s beginning to reverse years of the state’s neglecting its responsibilities to help clean up the Bay.
“We are starting to turn the aircraft carrier,” she said.
Others, though, say they don’t see much sign of that.
“I think things are pretty well stalled at this point,” said David Hess, a former state secretary of environmental protection who’s now a lobbyist in Harrisburg. Key components of the reboot plan, such as promised increased funding, have yet to materialize, he noted.
The reboot plan, developed jointly by the state departments of Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, and Environmental Protection, is intended to get the state back on track to meet its obligations under the Bay “pollution diet” imposed in 2010 by the EPA.
The six states in the Chesapeake watershed are supposed to have sufficient measures in place by next year to achieve 60 percent of the pollution reductions, and 100 percent by 2025. While Pennsylvania has met its 2017 phosphorus goal, EPA’s computer modeling indicates the state is far off pace to make the needed reductions in nitrogen and sediment pollution.
As of the end of last year, Pennsylvania was on the hook for 86 percent of the remaining nitrogen reductions still needed from all of the states to meet the 2017 goal, and for nearly 70 percent of the cumulative reductions to reach the overall 2025 goal.
As a first step toward addressing Pennsylvania’s deficiencies, state officials had pledged to inspect 10 percent of the 33,000 farms in the Bay watershed annually, starting July 1. Officials said the dragnet was needed to restore “a culture of compliance,” after EPA reviews found fewer than 2 percent were being checked each year, with little being done to promptly address problems that turned up. A records review also found as many as 70 percent of farms lack required plans for managing farm animal manure and for controlling erosion and sediment pollution.
Critical shortage of inspectors
State staffing is critically short, so the DEP is relying on county conservation district offices to help out with the inspection ramp-up. But more than a month after the designated start date, the farm checks have yet to begin, and it’s unclear how many of the 43 conservation districts in the Bay watershed will participate. At the end of June, Kasi had said eight districts had notified the DEP they would take part, while seven had said they would not, with the majority still on the fence.
Last week, DEP spokesman Neil Shader declined to provide an update, saying the number is still in flux. And on Friday, the DEP issued a news release calling on all the conservation districts to “finalize their role in conducting agricultural inspections.” The department sent district officials a letter saying it had tweaked the inspection procedures to address their “remaining concerns” about the effort. In the letter, Patrick McDonnell, acting DEP secretary, urged the districts to sign and return by Aug. 30 a one-page form saying they would participate.
DEP spokesman Shader said state officials have been in discussions with district officials for weeks, seeking to overcome their qualms and get them on board with the inspections. The letter was meant to highlight how the state had attempted to address one of their concerns, by spelling out that districts would not be penalized if farmers refused to permit their farms to be inspected. The DEP has said that for districts to continue receiving state funding for Bay technicians, each of those staffers will be expected to inspect 50 farms in the coming year. Shader said some districts had asked if money would be withheld if some inspections could not be performed because farmers refused permission.
So, with steps taken to clarify that a farmer’s refusal would not be held against an inspector, the DEP decided it was time to issue a “fish or cut bait” message to the conservation districts, Shader said.
“This is going to be sort of where the rubber meets the road,” the DEP spokesman said, “and by the end of August, there’s going to be a concrete list of who’s in and who’s out.”
But at least some conservation districts may have been waiting to see the contract with DEP that they’re expected to sign in order to receive state funding. As of the beginning of August, the DEP still had not produced the final version of the contract.
“I think we’re still dealing with a project that has not been finalized, so some of the districts have said let’s just wait and see what the final product is,” said Brenda Shambaugh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts. She said she had heard that 20 to 25 districts had indicated their willingness to do inspections, but nine had refused.
“Nothing is set in concrete,” she added.
The DEP letter on Friday said districts would be sent a contract to sign after they return the one-page form indicating their willingness to do inspections.
At least some conservation district leaders have been reticent because doing inspections represents a big shift in what they see as their traditional role of helping farmers with technical assistance to improve conservation practices on their land.
“They feel as if the respect they have from the agricultural community might be compromised if they start doing inspections, and they might not be invited back to the farm,” Shambaugh had explained earlier. “It’s a line that they don’t want to cross.”
“We didn’t hire people to do inspections,” said Mark Kimmel, manager of the York County Conservation District, which has declined to participate. The staff who work with farmers on Bay-related conservation issues “live and work in the community,” the manager explained. “In most cases, they’re friends and neighbors of the people they would be inspecting. It’s a very uncomfortable position for them to be in.”
Indeed, Kimmel said, even before the inspection plan was unveiled, two of his staff quit and took jobs with the U.S. Department of Agriculture because they’d heard the change was coming.
The York district’s decision cost it $141,000, almost 10 percent of its budget, Kimmel said. The DEP regularly provides each district with a portion of its funding, and this year made participation in the farm checks a condition of the contracts they’d have to sign to get the money.
Kimmel called the funding cutoff counterproductive. Even before the inspection initiative was announced, he said, farmers had been asking the district for help writing conservation plans. He has a backlog now, he noted, of 150 such requests that would cover more than 37,000 acres of farmland in the county. To help deal with that backlog, the district manager said he’s trying to fill the two vacancies and find other funds to cover the loss.
Meanwhile, Kasi said that the DEP is preparing to step in and handle farm inspections in counties where the conservation districts won’t do it. By mid-June, initial training had been given to 60 or 70 staff, she said, some drawn from other branches of the DEP.
“We’re going to pull as we need from wherever to get the work done,” Kasi explained. “This is a priority.”
Under “standard operating procedures” posted last spring on the DEP’s website, farmers selected for inspection will be asked to produce the required plans, and inspectors are to scan them to see if they seem complete. Any farm lacking a plan or with an incomplete one will be given 90 days to remedy that, or up to six months if there are extenuating circumstances. Failure to comply with those deadlines could result in the DEP taking enforcement action. Inspectors will also be required to report any “pollution incidents” they see, such as a manure lagoon leaking or discharging into a stream.
Farmers can avoid an inspection by sending in copies of their plans, Kasi pointed out. Farmers who lack the required plans also may put off a visit if they pledge in advance to have them prepared.
Some say they fear the inspection initiative could bog down if there aren’t enough people trained to help farmers prepare the missing plans. With some conservation districts saying they’re already backed up with requests, DEP officials say they hope private consultants can pick up the slack.
“There are a number of them out there,” Kasi said. Asked if she knows how many and if they’re in a position to handle a greater workload, she replied, “I guess we’ll find out.”
Kasi pointed out that the manure and erosion plans inspectors would be checking for have been required for about 30 years.
“EPA’s made it very clear to us we can’t keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past many years,” she said. “We have to start somewhere to change and accelerate what we’re doing. So this is the first step in doing that.”
EPA also has found serious shortcomings in Pennsylvania’s efforts to reduce stormwater pollution, and questioned whether the state can reach its goal for that sector. The agency is pressing for more inspections and for a significant increase in projects to curb runoff. The DEP recently published a new municipal stormwater permit spelling out pollution reduction measures to be required in 2018 of an estimated 300 small communities in the Bay watershed. Kasi said the DEP has begun holding workshops with local officials to prepare them.
There has been some progress on a few other elements of the reboot strategy. Penn State Extension is preparing to visit 700 farms in the Bay watershed in the next month, seeking to verify farmers’ reports that they’ve put pollution-curbing “best management practices” on their farms that have not previously been tallied toward the state’s Chesapeake cleanup efforts. Kasi said state officials hope that by identifying previously uncounted conservation practices, they can show the EPA that Pennsylvania has made more progress restoring the Bay than currently estimated.
Streamside tree effort falling short
The Wolf administration also took its first step recently – albeit a tiny one -- toward meeting another Bay commitment: lining Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams with trees to improve water quality. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced it would began taking applications Aug. 1 for grants to put in “riparian buffers” – streamside trees that can prevent sediment and nutrients from running off the land into the water.
Tens of thousands of acres of streamside trees have been planted over the last two decades, but the effort has dwindled in recent years.
“Most willing farmers have already signed up in the last decade or so,” explained Matthew Keefer, the DCNR’s assistant state forester. The rest are reluctant to give up the opportunity to raise corn or other income-producing crops on the land, or, Keefer added, are “just not willing to participate in a government program.”
The department announced this grant would “pilot” a new, more flexible approach, in which state assistance would be provided to plant trees that could yield the landowner some income, say, by harvesting nuts or berries, or branches that could be used to fashion wreaths or baskets. Other states have had some success with that approach, said Sara Nicholas, the DCNR’s director of policy and planning.
The department plans to award up to $500,000 in grants statewide for plantings to be made next year, Nicholas said. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with rough estimates that the state will need to invest $170 million to reach its ultimate goal of 95,000 acres of new streamside plantings in the Bay watershed alone.
“We’re starting small,” Nicholas acknowledged. But she said officials have been in “robust discussions” with potential private and public funders to boost that financial commitment.
Lack of money, state officials and outsiders agree, is the overriding handicap Pennsylvania faces in catching up with its Bay cleanup obligations. Penn State has estimated that meeting the state’s obligations to reduce farm and stormwater pollution could cost anywhere from $260 million to $380 million a year through 2025.
Under its “reboot” strategy, the Wolf administration officials had pledged to obtain additional resources for water quality improvement by seeking new sources of funding. But that’s not happening, at least not this year.
“It’s in many ways a dollars and cents issue,” said Matthew Stepp, policy director for the environmental group Penn Future. The departments of Environmental Protection and Agriculture both need a lot more money if the reboot strategy is to succeed, he said.
Politics adds to uncertainty
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has been sparring since last year with the Republican-dominated legislature over the state’s budget as they debated how to close a long-term structural deficit and adequately fund needed programs and services. The two sides remained deadlocked for months beyond last year’s deadline before agreeing to a makeshift spending plan.
This year, as the July 1 deadline neared, a budget for 2017 remained elusive despite intense negotiations.
Adding to the uncertainty was a sudden change in the administration’s environmental leadership. DEP Secretary John Quigley abruptly resigned in May amid a controversy over a private email he sent to environmental activists, which leaked out. The profanity-laced message lambasted them for not pushing back against lawmakers opposing regulations his department had proposed governing natural gas drilling and coal-burning power plants. Environmental groups subsequently aired ads critical of some lawmakers, angering their targets, who accused Quigley of orchestrating it.
Wolf named McDonnell, who had been the DEP’s policy director, to succeed Quigley as acting secretary. Wolf then struck compromises with lawmakers on the rules in dispute, agreeing to scrap new drilling limits for part of the gas industry and dragging out the timeline for the adoption of a plan to reduce climate-warming power plant emissions.
“The governor wants to make a deal, and unfortunately the environment is suffering,” Stepp said.
Environmentalists were disappointed but not surprised then, that under the circumstances, legislators did not agree to any major increases in spending on Bay cleanup over the next year.
“The new budget falls short of providing the resources necessary for the Commonwealth to successfully follow-through on the rebooted clean water strategy it committed to earlier this year,” said Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. While saying that the Wolf administration’s “reboot” strategy could be a “catalyst” for getting the state back on track with its Bay cleanup responsibilities, Campbell warned that “without the resources to back it up, it is destined to fail.”
With the budget debate in Harrisburg focused this year on how to fund pensions and reduce debt, Wolf proposed no big revenue increases, and essentially flat funding for agency operating budgets. Wolf had said in February he was considering seeking an infusion of bond funding for the nearly 2-decade-old state Growing Greener program, to be focused this time on water quality. But he did not include it in his budget request for this year.
The funding problem has been growing worse for more than a decade, said Hess, the former DEP secretary, as agency budgets have been shrinking under Democratic and Republican governors alike.
“For 13 years, the budgets for DEP and other environmental programs have been cut — 13 years in a row,” Hess said. “At some point, we’ve got to figure out how to do this, or frankly somebody else is going to figure it out for us. And that somebody else could be a federal court somewhere or EPA, obviously.”
EPA had withheld $2.9 million in grant funds last year as a show of displeasure over Pennsylvania’s Bay cleanup shortcomings, but restored the money after the reboot plan was released. Shawn Garvin, EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional administrator, had said at the time that the agency could keep close tabs on the state’s progress in carrying out the strategy.
In June, in a review of Bay states’ cleanup progress to date, the EPA noted that as a result of Pennsylvania’s reboot strategy, the state has set milestones for improving farm compliance and for tracking what conservation practices are in place. But the agency said Pennsylvania still has not mapped out how it will get back on track with pollution reductions.
“It’s very much a work in progress,” Garvin said of the state’s reboot effort, during a telephone conference call with reporters in mid-June.
“I know the commitment is there,” he added. “The question becomes the actual implementation. This is going to take resources. The Wolf administration recognizes that…They recognize there is a need to change the trajectory they’ve been on. Now the issue is us working with them and partners to help them achieve it.”
Consequences of delayed progress
The EPA did say it likely would require more proof of Pennsylvania than of other states that it could carry out its cleanup plans. And the agency warned there might be further consequences if progress is not forthcoming, such as conducting farm inspections of its own and expanding regulatory oversight of smaller animal feeding operations.
Worried that Pennsylvania could face worse sanctions, some lawmakers have proposed raising new environmental funds by making many businesses pay for the water they now take for free from the state’s rivers, streams and lakes.
Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat representing the city of Lancaster, has introduced a bill to levy “a nominal fee” on withdrawals of water by commercial and industrial users, who now take an estimated 4.4 billion gallons daily. It would exempt municipal water system users, as well as farmers.
The measure could raise $245 million a year, with $30 million annually going to the DEP; $25 million to the DCNR; and $5 million to the state Fish and Boat Commission. The remaining $185 million would be earmarked for water-related projects in each of Pennsylvania’s six major watersheds, roughly half of which ultimately drain into the Bay.
Sturla, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative policy group, said he believes the fee is needed to help Pennsylvania do its part to clean up the Bay. But even for state residents who don’t feel much love for an estuary that’s beyond their borders, he said, they ought to support the bill out of self-interest, because it would help restore water quality in the state’s many pollution-degraded rivers and streams.
“In fact, Pennsylvania has the most miles of impaired streams of any state in the nation…so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Sturla said. “If what’s flowing in my backyard is clean, what’s flowing into the Bay will be clean.”
Sturla said his bill has 13 co-sponsors, three of them Republicans. Rep. Garth Everett, a Republican who represents Lycoming County in northern Pennsylvania, is one.
But Everett said, “I don’t think it has a snowball’s chance in the environment right now.” So he has put in a resolution calling for a legislative study of the fee, how it would be raised and how spent. Everett said he believes that’s needed to lay the groundwork for persuading enough lawmakers to buck political convention and offer support.
Even a study might be hard to sell, he said, pointing out a similar suggestion a few years ago by another lawmaker that was squelched. He said he’s already heard grumbling from business and industry, and said he expects resistance from power plant operators, the state’s biggest users of water for cooling.
Also a member of the Bay Commission, Everett said he’s a fiscal conservative, but a pragmatist.
“We’ve got an issue to deal with and it’s not going away,” he said. “We’ve kicked the can down the road…I think we need to take care of our own house.”
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