Water fee proposed in Pennsylvania to pay for Bay, stream cleanup
Legislation, which would raise $245 million a year from industrial, commercial users, faces uphill struggle
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A leading Pennsylvania legislator has proposed charging for water taken from state waterways to help fund the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary as well as the commonwealth’s other streams and rivers.
Legislation introduced Monday by Rep. Michael Sturla, a Democrat representing the city of Lancaster, would raise $245 million a year, based on current water withdrawal rates.
“According to the (state) constitution, the water in Pennsylvania is actually owned by the citizens of Pennsylvania — unlike our other natural resources, which are held by private property rights,” Sturla said. The bill would make commercial and industrial entities now withdrawing water for free pay “a nominal fee,” he said, with the revenues to be spent on water-related projects around the state.
Anyone using more than 10,000 gallons of water daily is already required to obtain a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection. The Pennsylvania Water Resource Act would levy a charge of one-hundredth of a cent per gallon on withdrawals that are eventually returned to their source. Any water withdrawn and not returned would be charged a fee of one-tenth of a cent per gallon.
The bill would exempt the 1.5 billion gallons of water withdrawn daily for agricultural and municipal water uses, but would raise revenue from an estimated 4.4 billion gallons taken by commercial and industrial users. Power plants, which pull water from rivers for cooling, are the state’s largest water consumers, Sturla said.
"It starts to recognize that in order to make sure we have clean water in the state of Pennsylvania, that we actually have to pay for it somehow," Sturla said at a Harrisburg press conference. "It doesn't just come for free."
Money from the fee would be spent on water-related state programs, with $30 million annually going to the DEP, $25 million to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and $5 million to the state Fish and Boat Commission. The remainder — $185 million — would be earmarked for water-related projects in each of Pennsylvania’s six major watersheds. The bill includes an option to use the annual revenue stream to finance a $3 billion bond issue for water-related projects.
About half the revenue would be reserved for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where Pennsylvania is under the gun to make deep reductions in nutrient pollution, primarily from farm runoff of fertilizer and animal manure. Sturla, who is chairman of the House Democratic policy committee, is one of three Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory body representing the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
Pennsylvania has been lagging badly in meeting its obligations under the Bay “pollution diet” to reduce water-fouling nutrient and sediment flowing into the Chesapeake, most from the Susquehanna River but some also from the Potomac River watershed. Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged a “reboot” of the state’s efforts, including finding much-needed additional funding for cleanup programs.
Sturla said his bill has 13 cosponsors, of whom three are Republicans. With the GOP in control of both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature, the Lancaster Democrat acknowledged the political deck is stacked against it this year. But he said he hoped other lawmakers would come to recognize its merits and approve it next year.
“At a time when the state is searching for revenue to implement clean water projects as well as new revenue to close the budget deficit, I think this piece of legislation is a viable option,” Sturla said.
Rep. Garth Everett, a Republican who represents Lycoming County in northern Pennsylvania, has introduced a resolution calling for a study of the water use fee. Everett, who also represents the state on the Bay commission, said he believes state lawmakers need more information to feel comfortable with the idea of the fee, and the need for additional revenues to address long-term statewide water quality problems, not just in the Bay watershed.
“We’ve got an issue to deal with and it’s not going to go away,” Everett said. “We’ve kicked the can down the road.”
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