Pennsylvania is finally getting good marks — something the state is not accustomed to earning when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Pennsylvania department secretaries discuss the Chesapeake Bay on a  radio station talk show. From left to right: Cindy Adams Dunn, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; Russell C. Redding, Department of Agriculture; and Patrick McDonnell, Department of Environmental Protection. (PA Department of Agriculture)

The state has fallen far behind in meeting its cleanup goals, but it recently launched an ambitious plan to overhaul that effort with its new watershed implementation plan — a state roadmap to reduce the amount of water-fouling nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches local waters and the Bay.

In crafting the new plan, the state is working hard to engage the more than 1,000 boroughs, cities, counties, townships, conservation districts and other local government entities that will have a role to play if the state is to get back on track in meeting its cleanup obligations.

“I haven’t seen this level of understanding and agreement [from Pennsylvania] in the time I’ve been here,” said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Bay Program Office, who is encouraged by new efforts in the state. “Of the seven jurisdictions, they were the furthest behind out of the starting gate. It has been great to have that level of activity at the table.”

Pennsylvania doesn’t physically touch the Bay, but like others in its watershed, it was required to make nutrient reductions under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or “pollution diet,” in 2010. The nutrient reduction is needed to curtail algal blooms and improve oxygen levels in the Bay to sustain fish, crabs and other aquatic life. The EPA, which is in charge of enforcing cleanup efforts, has criticized the state’s progress, and twice withheld grant funding — temporarily — to prompt it to step up its efforts.

Other states are either on track, or close to being on track, to meeting their ultimate cleanup goals, and computer models suggest that roughly three-quarters of the nitrogen reductions required between now and 2025 will need to come from Pennsylvania.

Now, the state is showing a new level of commitment, at least on paper. Under the pollution diet, all of the states in the Chesapeake watershed are to implement all actions to clean the Bay by 2025. The region is halfway to the deadline, and states are preparing to write new “Phase III” watershed implementation plans, or WIPs, that will show how they will implement all needed actions by the deadline.

PA ahead in planning

To guide those plans, the state-federal Bay Program is expected to finalize new “planning targets” for each state and major river within the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed in July. The planning targets, based on new science and new computer models, will update the 2025 nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals.

The Susquehanna meanders through Pennsylvania, which has more local governments than all the other states in the watershed combined. (Karl Blankenship)

Once those targets are set, the clock officially starts ticking with a one-year deadline for states to complete their new Phase III WIPs. In letters to the states last year, the EPA said that it expects states to include “effective local engagement” and “local planning goals” when drafting those plans.

The Keystone State has already had numerous meetings that have engaged three cabinet secretaries and a host of stakeholders, including local governments, and is working closely with several counties to pilot the writing of local cleanup plans. Its level of local engagement at this point exceeds that of any other state, Batiuk said.

Pennsylvania — which has more local governments than all the other states in the watershed combined — has embraced that objective and has already jumped into the planning process using draft pollution reduction numbers from the Bay Program. The state is divvying up those numbers among counties. It will revise them if needed when final nitrogen and phosphorus reduction figures are released around July. But for now, they are launching a pilot county-scale planning effort that would involve four counties.

Lancaster County, the single largest source of nutrients in the state, has already called on its townships, conservation districts and residents to help draft a local Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. That will build upon already-started local efforts with the newly formed Lancaster County Clean Water Partners, which consists of businesses, municipalities and nonprofits that are already taking on agricultural and stormwater projects to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff to local waterways.

Meanwhile, neighboring York County, led by its planning commission, has focused on bringing together developed areas that are regulated for stormwater to work regionally to meet requirements. If York and Lancaster fully meet their nitrogen reduction targets, Pennsylvania would be a quarter of the way to its statewide Chesapeake Bay goal.

State officials are also working to recruit Franklin and Adams counties into the pilot planning project. Both are more rural, and have more sparsely staffed planning departments, conservation districts and local governments.

Clean Water Toolbox

By working with such divergent counties, state officials hope to test-drive the Community Clean Water Tool Box developed by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The toolbox includes myriad information that is county-specific, breaks down nitrogen and phosphorus loads to each stream,  shows whether loads are increasing or decreasing and indicates where the county could implement a variety of pollution control practices to help meet both local restoration goals and Bay pollution diet objectives. Based on their experiences, officials plan to tweak the 60-page planning document so it can better help other municipalities.Lancaster and York counties along the Susquehanna River are working to meet their nitrogen reduction goals. If the counties fully meet those targets, Pennsylvania would be a quarter of the way to its statewide nitrogen reduction goal. (Dave Harp)

“This is a new endeavor in terms of not only the toolkit, but in terms of using a bottom-up approach,” said Patrick McDonnell, DEP secretary. “The reality is, when we’re talking about how we address our obligations in the Chesapeake Bay, it really does come back to a series of incredibly small decisions — county by county, municipality by municipality and parcel by parcel.”

Lancaster and York counties, which drain into the Susquehanna River, have been heavily involved in developing the state WIP, said Veronica Kasi, program manager of the DEP’s Chesapeake Bay office, and have local initiatives and a group of officials ready to start planning. Franklin and Adams counties have been less active.

“We wanted two in the Susquehanna and two in the Potomac [watersheds],” Kasi said. “We thought we’d start working with a small number of counties and make sure it’s effective and it’s productive.”

Once finalized, the DEP will tailor the technical information for each county that wants to use the toolbox to create its own local Bay plan. In addition, Kasi said each county will have a technical team that includes assistance from the DEP, EPA and staff from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to help guide them through the process. The DEP is negotiating with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin for similar technical assistance for counties in that watershed. Ultimately, the department plans to incorporate the county plans into the state WIP it submits to the EPA.

Still, some county officials have expressed concern that additional resources may not be available to take their local river goals up to the scale of action required by the Bay TMDL — even with the addition of the DEP technical team.

Kirk Stoner, director of the Cumberland County Planning Department, said that while he is impressed with the toolbox and the DEP’s strategy for the Phase III WIP, the difficult part is going to be finding the right leaders within each county. He noted that in Pennsylvania, local municipalities such as townships and boroughs have all of the authority over the land use decisions that ultimately affect runoff, not county governments.

“We will need consistent funding from county to county to plan and implement this WIP,” he said. “The most important part is finding someone who is going to lead the effort. You have to do that through incentives. I don’t think anyone is going to volunteer.”