A Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Monday approved a bill that would roll back a requirement that streamside buffers be used to protect “the best of the best” state waterways.

The bill previously cleared the House of Representatives Sept. 22 on a 119–79 vote, but has been sharply criticized by environmental groups and the state Fish and Boat Commission.

Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed disappointment and urged the full Senate to reject the bill. “It simply does not make sense to allow developers to cut down existing trees, especially along Pennsylvania’s last remaining pristine streams,” he said.

After Monday’s approval by the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, the full Senate could take the bill up later this week or next.

The measure would change a regulation adopted by the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 requiring new development that disturbs more than an acre of land to provide a 150-foot forest buffer along state-designated “high quality” and “exceptional value” streams, which advocates and agencies dub “the best of the best.”

Instead, the bill says 100-foot buffers” may be used as a preferred choice” along streams but allows developers to substitute other stormwater control practices. It also allows existing buffers to be removed if replacement buffers are planted elsewhere within the watershed.

Environmental groups strongly criticized the bill, saying forested buffers provided the greatest protection for high quality streams and warning that the change could result in more pollution to waterways.

The state is already lagging in its efforts to meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, and its cleanup plans rely heavily on establishing new stream buffers.

At a January hearing, supporters of the bill characterized the regulations as a “one size fits all” approach that lacked flexibility and deprived landowners use of their land.

“In this case, when developing land or even planning land uses, we are rendering large portions of the land off-limits when doing so may not be the practical, efficient, affordable or effective way to protect our waterways on every occasion,” said Rep. Marcia Hahn, R-Northhampton County, sponsor of the bill. “Furthermore, for landowners, these regulations have resulted in a taking of private property without legislative oversight or approval.”

But DEP figures presented during the hearing showed that in the first two years of the regulation’s implementation, only 155 of 6,337 construction permits affected buffers, and nearly half of those — 75 — qualified for a waiver from the requirements.

Some developers contend the DEP figures underestimate the future impact of the regulations because of the slow economy in recent years.

“We really don’t know the impact this is having on permits and it’s having on residential development,” Joe Harcum, treasurer of Pennsylvania Builders Association, said at the hearing, warning that the regulations “could have a severe impact on the state of Pennsylvania.”

Environmentalists contend that the regulations already exempt a wide range of activities, such as those affecting less than an acre of land, single family homes not part of a larger development, and the maintenance of roads, pipelines and utilities.

No other runoff control practice provides the same level of stream benefits as forest buffers, they said, which include filtering pollutants, controlling stream temperatures and creating habitat for fish and aquatic life.

“We know of no other best management measures or practices that would provide all of the functions and protections afforded by riparian buffers,” the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited said in a letter to lawmakers. “Thus, weakening the existing regulatory requirements would have a deleterious impact on water quality and aquatic and terrestrial biological communities.”

And, environmental groups noted that the bill’s offset provision allows mature, functioning buffers to be replaced with newly planted buffers that would not provide the same benefits for years or decades, and can be planted someplace else.

Those groups were joined in their opposition to the bill by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, an independent state agency, which noted that High Quality and Exceptional Value designations affect only a minority of streams in the state.

“Riparian buffers are the least expensive, most effective, and lowest maintenance approach to sustaining water quality and reducing the harmful impacts of erosion, sedimentation, and flooding,” John Arway, executive director of the commission, said in a letter opposing the change. “Our agency wholeheartedly endorsed the establishment of riparian buffer protections when they were being debated in 2010, and our support for the requirements is unwavering.”

If approved, the bill may also make it more difficult for the state to achieve its commitment under the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement that all state-identified healthy waterways remain healthy.