Pennsylvania’s environmental leaders unveiled a plan to increase oversight of farms and step up efforts to plant stream buffers and implement other conservation actions to “reboot” the state’s lagging efforts to meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.
The strategy released in January said that the majority of farms may not yet have their required conservation plans, and that cleanup efforts are being funded at only a third of needed levels. The rate of farm inspections is so low, the plan reported, that it would take the state more than half a century to inspect all of the farms in its portion of the Bay watershed.
As a result, the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay from the state has slightly increased since a new enforceable Bay cleanup plan went into place in 2010, and efforts to control sediment are also failing. One bright spot: Computer models show the state is on track to meet phosphorus goals.
“It’s pretty clear that Pennsylvania has to change its approach,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley said in unveiling the state’s new Chesapeake Bay strategy.
“The consequences of not meeting these goals are stark and severe,” he said.
The state’s failures with nitrogen and sediment spurred the Environmental Protection Agency last year to withhold $2.9 million in Bay grant funds, and the agency could take additional actions if state performance does not improve.
Recent EPA reviews had found fewer than 2 percent of the 33,610 farms in the state’s portion of the watershed — which are the largest source of nitrogen pollution — were being inspected each year. When inspectors found problems, they often were not addressed in a timely manner, and no statewide system existed to share information about program implementation.
The EPA has also expressed concerns about the state’s stormwater programs, and doubts Pennsylvania could meet nutrient reduction goals it established for those systems.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load established in 2010, Pennsylvania and other states are required to implement all actions needed to meet nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reduction goals by 2025. Actions to achieve 60 percent of those reductions are to be in place by the end of next year.
While several states are falling short of some goals, Pennsylvania’s gap is huge. Pennsylvania is the largest source of nitrogen to the Bay. According to data released last year, the watershed needed to reduce 29 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from 2015–17 to meet the interim goal. Of that, 23 million pounds needs to come from Pennsylvania.
From 1985 through 2009, the state reduced nitrogen runoff by about 8 million pounds, from 124.3 million to 116.6 million. But nitrogen runoff has since then risen by about 400,000 pounds annually, with increases coming from agriculture, stormwater and septic systems. On the positive side, wastewater treatment plants — which produce less than a 10th of Pennsylvania’s total nitrogen — have already met their 2017 goals.
Quigley said the new plan would help the state meet its ultimate 2025 goal, though. As part of the strategy, Quigley emphasized the need for the state to create a “culture of compliance” with farms and stormwater systems and said it would ramp up inspections of both.
Quigley noted that a recent review by the department found that as many as 70 percent of farms did not have needed manure management plans or erosion and sediment control plans in place.
The state wants to improve recordkeeping, and the strategy said it may institute mandatory reporting by the agricultural sector for certain activities as voluntary reporting had proven inadequate.
Working with Penn State, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and others, the state is launching an effort to better document runoff control practices implemented by farmers that may not have been reported to the state because they were not financed with state or federal money.
“We have got to hear from farmers in Pennsylvania,” Quigley said. “They have long said, ‘We are doing the right things, but we are not getting credit for it.’ This is the moment where we can change that.”
The state plans to find new sources of funding for Bay-related cleanup efforts. The strategy said that annually, $127.6 million in state and federal funding was going toward on-the-ground program implementation, whereas a Penn State study estimated that $378.3 million a year was needed.
It also would create a new Chesapeake Bay Office within the DEP to coordinate Chesapeake-related activities. The DEP will also identify new legislation or regulations that may be needed to meet goals.
The plan calls for a new riparian forest buffer initiative that would plant 95,000 additional acres of trees along streams by 2025. Forest buffers are highly effective at removing nutrients and improving local stream quality.
Quigley said his agency wants to form partnerships with other agencies and organizations to plant significant numbers of forest buffers and install other high-impact conservation practices in targeted watersheds to demonstrate their ability to meet Bay goals and improve local waterways.
“Local water quality is a constitutional right in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It is something that we owe each other. And every farmer, every community, every citizen has to do their part. And that really is what this effort to restore Pennsylvania’s local water quality is all about.”
After Pennsylvania released its strategy, EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin said in a letter that Pennsylvania had taken “solid first steps” to help close the gap, and released to the state the $2.9 million in grant funds it had previously held back.
At the same time, Garvin said the agency would closely monitor the state’s progress, and wanted to see “firm deadlines” established within the next 18 months for each action.
EPA spokesman David Sternberg said the agency still expects the state to meet its cleanup deadlines. “We expect all states, including Pennsylvania, to be on track with the goals adopted by the Bay partnership [so] that by 2017, practices are in place to achieve 60 percent of the pollution reductions. In Pennsylvania, this equates to an additional 23 million pounds of nitrogen to be on track.”
To help, the letter suggested that the state consider moving more of the nitrogen reduction burden to wastewater treatment plants — one sector in the state that is exceeding its nutrient goals.
The letter also said it was “especially” important that the state find ways to increase funding for agricultural conservation practices.
But the status of additional funding is unclear. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature have been locked in a budget standoff since July, which has prevented the adoption of a new budget.
While last year’s budget remains in limbo, Wolf proposed a 2016–17 budget in February that environmentalists said provided little in new support for the new Bay strategy.
“While this ‘rebooted’ effort establishes a framework for success, we do not see enough resources in the governor’s budget proposal to ensure that success,” said Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Nor does the budget increase the number of DEP inspectors.
Quigley acknowledged that the DEP does not have — and is not likely to have — staffing to fully implement the strategy, especially for activities such as dramatically ramped-up farm inspections.
The strategy calls for increasing the number of farms inspected each year from less than 2 percent to 10 percent. While some of those increased inspections could come from proposed increased staffing within the DEP, the strategy relies heavily on county conservation districts and would switch the focus of certain state funds sent to the districts from education to inspections.
That change has raised concern among some districts because it changes the traditional role of district staff from providing assistance to oversight.
Mark Kimmel, district manager for the York County Conservation District, said he and others are worried the “change in paradigm” the state wants would make farmers less likely to seek assistance.
“Philosophically, when working with the agricultural community, we have always wanted to have the welcome mat set up so they request our assistance whenever they have a problem,” Kimmel said. “If we are also going to be charged with inspecting those farms, are we going to lose that welcome mat approach?”
The switch from placing more emphasis on inspections and enforcement over traditional technical assistance is more complex than it may seem on paper, conservation district officials say. The person who does a good job providing assistance to farmers is not necessarily the same person who would be an effective inspector.
Further, the change raises practical issues — county conservation districts typically share offices with their federal U.S. Department of Agriculture counterparts and often share files as well. But USDA is limited by law from sharing farm information that could be used for enforcement.
Nate Dewing, agricultural team leader with the Bradford County Conservation District, said it was important to discuss potential changes in the role of conservation districts to make them more effective in meeting water quality goals.
“It’s not just a question of whether it’s uncomfortable for us,” Dewing said. “It is a question of whether the role is right for the conservation district. Are there solutions that help Pennsylvania out and still keep intact, and not be detrimental to, the role that has developed over 30 years?”
Pennsylvania’s failure to meet pollution targets is particularly troubling because nitrogen from the Susquehanna River, which drains much of Pennsylvania, has a disproportionately large impact on Bay water quality. A pound of nitrogen from the Susquehanna contributes more to the Chesapeake’s oxygen-starved summertime dead zone than the same amount from most other rivers. Therefore, shortfalls from Pennsylvania are not easily offset by greater reductions elsewhere.
But Pennsylvania faces special problems in addressing Bay issues. While half of the state is in the Bay watershed, it does not include its three largest cities — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Allentown — so Bay issues don’t have a strong constituency in the state’s General Assembly.
The mandated cleanup effort is also unpopular in parts of the state. Fifteen Pennsylvania counties joined in a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the American Farm Bureau Federation’s challenge to the Bay TMDL, contending it represents an overreach of EPA authority.