Bay Journal

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Pennsylvania stormwater: There’s an app for that!

  • October 28, 2016
Rain garden installed in Altoona, PA, park helps absorb stormwater  before it washes into a local stream. (Chris Foster / Stiffler, McGraw & Associates)

The November print issue of the Bay Journal has gone to press, so we will be putting the stories online over the next week or two. One of the first to go up is a piece I wrote about Pennsylvania localities beginning to tackle their polluted runoff. 

The story was inspired by a presentation at the annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, WV, which is organized by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. I try to go every year, and not just because it’s in a beautiful location. The sessions are usually packed with interesting information, and you always meet people from corners of the watershed you didn’t know before. (I now have a long list of places in West Virginia that I must visit, including Smoke Hole Canyon, thanks to tips gathered at the bar.)

But mostly, this year’s program interested me because there were not one, but two, sessions on Pennsylvania stormwater.

We have written a lot at the Bay Journal about Pennsylvania being incredibly behind on meeting its pollution-reduction goals. Mostly, the problem has been with agriculture, but stormwater and sewage treatment are significant issues upstream, too.

The Susquehanna accounts for half of the fresh water entering  the Chesapeake Bay. If it’s running off the streets with no treatment, it’s carrying with it the detritus of urban life —nutrients, dirt, sediment, chemicals settling on the road from air pollution, motor oil, cadmium and more.

How to tackle it? I consider myself a Pennsylvanian, though at this point I’ve lived in Maryland more years by far than anywhere else. But I grew up in Pittsburgh, and worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as a police reporter for a year. During that time, I made hundreds of calls every night to police precincts in western Pennsylvania. While Maryland has large swaths of unincorporated areas where thousands of people live — I’m looking at you, Towson —  it seems Pennsylvania only needs a few dozen people to live along a couple of streets to declare itself a town.

Pennsylvania has more than 2,500 municipalities, 700 of which are in the watershed, many of which have part-time mayors or commissioners. Stormwater is not at the top of their list, and even if it was, most don’t have the money or the staff to address decades-old infrastructure problems.

I knew Lancaster, PA, was working on its stormwater; we profiled the effort several years ago.

But I was surprised at the Watershed Forum to learn of a progressive group of thinkers from Blair County, who were banding together to work on curbing runoff. Blair County’s main city is Altoona, 180 miles from the Chesapeake. But the Juniata River flows through the county, and those in charge could see a need to address problems.

York County, of course, is closer to the Bay, and includes parts of the Susquehanna. But it, too, had to corral 44 municipalities to tackle runoff there. The Chesapeake Conservancy has developed a stormwater tool -- an "app," if you will -- to help prioritize which projects they’re going to tackle. Collectively, the consortium of municipalities pay for the projects, and collectively, they get credit for the reductions. You can read more about that here.

There’s no question Pennsylvania has a long way to go on stormwater, and that other states, like Maryland, are still far ahead — despite widespread criticism of Maryland’s plans in the wake of a stormwater fee rollback.

But I think part of our job, as reporters, is also to highlight places where things are working. Impossible seems impossible when you have not tried it. But once you do, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, impossible is nothing. Maybe once other communities see that, they will tackle their stormwater, and the Chesapeake will be the better for it.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

Russell on October 28, 2016:

Where's the app?

Bruce Potter on October 31, 2016:

As moderator of a couple dozen e-mail groups and a few web sites, plus an award program for innovations in resource management in islands of the Caribbean, I'm a believer in the value of information services of various types to enable smarter management processes for natural resources required by deteriorating environmental conditions in the Bay and other heavily impacted regions. But in a political environment that insists there are no public sector funds available for any public purpose, including welfare safety nets, education reforms, or basic health services, significant incentives are absolutely essential. Most state-level leadership throughout the Chesapeake watershed provides mostly magical thinking about the need for real infrastructure upgrades, funded by real money. Only the imposition of real sanctions and positive rewards by the Chesapeake Bay Program and its constituent agencies, combined with good science-based monitoring, will provide the context for real progress. We've already had 30+ years of experience with the value of magical Bay models. Let's continue to push for data and facts, rigorously applied.

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