Pennsylvania’s lagging Bay cleanup got a much-needed fiscal transfusion when restoration leaders met in early October and pledged $28 million to fund conservation efforts in the commonwealth.
But as lawmakers in Harrisburg were reminded a couple of weeks later, the Keystone State still faces a huge funding gap over the coming decade to meet its Bay pollution reduction obligations.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, meeting with other members of the Chesapeake Executive Council Oct. 4 in Boyce, VA, acknowledged that his state “has some explaining to do” for its failure to meet agreed-upon pollution reduction milestones, and said he would commit $11.8 million more to the effort by shifting funds in the commonwealth’s budget.
Federal officials, in turn, also announced more aid. Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said his department would provide $12.7 million more, while U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency was funneling an additional $4.2 million to the state.
“That is not chump change,” McCarthy said, as onlookers applauded.
The $28 million figure was a bit inflated, as some of the pledged federal funding had previously been announced. Even so, officials said the increase should help the Wolf administration make progress on its plan announced in January to “reboot” Bay cleanup efforts.
The bulk of the new funds are slated for installing “priority conservation practices” on farms, with much of it targeted toward 11 of the watershed’s most agricultural counties.
Officials said the increased aid should jump-start Pennsylvania’s efforts to reach the nutrient and sediment reduction targets set under the “pollution diet” the EPA has imposed on Bay watershed states.
But much more will be needed. For instance, the Wolf administration said it will put almost $2.5 million more into planting “riparian forest buffers,” streamside trees that soak up nutrients and prevent runoff. Yet the state is projected to need $170 million for that effort over the next decade to reach its goal of planting 95,000 acres of buffers by the 2025 cleanup deadline.
Pennsylvania officials noted that the state has made progress, cutting its Bay contribution of phosphorus by 25 percent since 1985, sediment by 15 percent and nitrogen by 6 percent.
“I’m very encouraged by what we see on the landscape,” said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s agriculture secretary, at an Oct. 18 legislative hearing. Driving the state’s back roads, Redding said, he has seen more fields planted in cover crops and more streamside buffers, among other things.
But Pennsylvania hasn’t kept pace with its neighbors. All watershed states are supposed to have measures in place by 2017 to achieve 60 percent of the overall pollution reductions needed for Bay restoration. While the commonwealth has already met its interim goal for phosphorus, the EPA’s computer modeling indicates the state is far behind on nitrogen and sediment reductions.
State Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican from Lycoming County and chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee, noted that almost 70 percent of the remaining nitrogen reductions for the entire six-state Bay watershed need to come from Pennsylvania. And 80 percent of those reductions have to come from the farming sector, he said. The state is also lagging badly on dealing with stormwater pollution, according to EPA modeling.
“We’ve accomplished a lot, but we have a lot more to do,” said Patrick McDonnell, acting DEP secretary. Under the Bay diet, Pennsylvania needs to reduce its nitrogen pollution by 17 million pounds by next year. But the state is so far behind that that’s not going to happen, he said, and it needs to reduce a total of 34 million pounds by 2025.
“We’re doing our level best with the resources we have,” McDonnell added, “but I think ultimately it’s going to require more.”
Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, warned lawmakers that without more funding, the Wolf administration’s reboot plan “will falter.”
“Adequate resources for outreach and education, inspections, and financial and technical assistance are also key to the success of this plan,” Campbell said.
Pennsylvania has invested about $180.5 million in Bay restoration efforts over the last three years, according to a fact sheet put out after the meeting of the Executive Council, which includes state governors, the EPA administrator, the District of Columbia mayor and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an legislative advisory panel.
But an analysis by Penn State University projects that the state needs to spend as much as $378 million annually in state, federal and private money to make the necessary pollution reductions.
“I think we need to start looking at sustainable funding,” said Sen. Judith L. Schwank, a Democrat from Berks County, as she questioned Wolf administration officials at the hearing. “Have you given thought to that?”
“We don’t have a specific plan per se,” Redding responded, though he said administration officials are mulling some sort of dedicated funding stream for Bay cleanup commitments.
“I think we need to have that conversation relatively soon,” Schwank said.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently introduced new “Growing Greener” legislation aimed at investing $315 million a year in measures to protect Pennsylvania’s water, land and natural resources. But the measure doesn’t specify where those funds would come from.
Several lawmakers of both parties support legislation that would raise funds to clean up state waterways by establishing a water withdrawal fee on businesses. As introduced, the measure could raise an estimated $245 million a year, with more than $90 million likely to go to projects in the Bay watershed.
The Republican-dominated legislature has been loath to raise taxes and two years ago, squelched a proposal to even study a water-use fee.
But with the EPA warning that there could be consequences for states that don’t meet Bay cleanup goals — such as federally mandated, costly upgrades of wastewater treatment plants, restrictions on permitting for new or expanded businesses and other regulations — at least some Republicans agree that it’s time to look for more money.
“We recognize that we have a problem in Pennsylvania,” Yaw said. The primary issue, he added, “is how are we going to identify a funding source to provide long-term funds to solve the problem?”
Michael McCloskey, a dairy farmer and spokesman for the Coalition for Affordable Bay Solutions, warned that many farmers can’t afford conservation practices, even with state or federal help. He suggested that the daunting cleanup costs — for farmers and the state — might be overcome by promoting manure-to-energy technology and moving more aggressively into a nutrient trading program, both of which he said could yield income for farmers while reducing pollution.
But the CBF’s Campbell cautioned, “There is no magic bullet, no simple solution.”
“We must avoid the temptation to believe that a single technology, practice or approach will solve the challenges” of restoring waterways damaged by pollution, he added, urging officials to focus on proven conservation measures shown to be the most effective at the least cost.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, acknowledged the difficulty of raising taxes or making sacrifices for an estuary far away from many residents. But she said that the state has 19,000 miles of impaired rivers and streams — the most in the nation. Making those waters safe for swimming, fishing and boating should be a cause everyone could support, she suggested, while also helping the Bay.
“When the time is right, you oftentimes can move on something like this,” she said. “Perhaps your time is right. It will take courage.”