Commitment To Restoring PA Watersheds Changed Fundamentally Before, After 2003

By David E. Hess, Former Secretary Of DEP

On October 28-29, the William Penn Foundation sponsored a two-day Accelerating Action: The Delaware River Watershed Forum in connection with the Foundation’s announcement it was directing significant funding toward creating a new Vision for the Delaware Watershed.

These remarks were delivered at one of the breakout sessions outlining the current political landscape in state government in Harrisburg and how Pennsylvania’s commitment to watershed restoration changed fundamentally before and after 2003--

Today I want to give you a quick overview of the political landscape in Harrisburg as background for you to consider as you develop a strategy for addressing the watershed restoration issues in the Delaware River Watershed.

Getting the science right and knowing what you need to do to restore the watershed is one thing, but turning that science into political action, and more importantly into the resources-- staff and money-- needed to address the issues is another.

There was a bright, clear line drawn in 2003 in Pennsylvania’s commitment to addressing the Commonwealth’s water quality issues.  Choices were made and I want to outline some of those here.

But first, I need to describe Pennsylvania’s statewide water quality issues.

More than 19,600 miles of streams are impaired in Pennsylvania-- 23 percent-- and nearly 67,990 acres of lakes impaired-- 42 percent. 

The top three causes of that impairment are all non-point source problems: Agricultural runoff- 5,705 miles, Siltation- 5,604 miles, Abandoned mine drainage- 5,596 miles and urban/suburban runoff- 4,103 miles.

Pennsylvania also has several specific obligations to clean up its rivers and streams as a result of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement and TMDL and Total Maximum Daily Load watershed plans which cover 7,200 miles of impaired streams in all parts of Pennsylvania.

All these commitments must be addressed.

Commitment To Restoring PA Watersheds Prior To 2003

The original Growing Greener Program was designed to deal head-on with non-point source pollution and all the leading causes of water impairment in Pennsylvania.

It was signed into law by Gov. Ridge in December 1999 and remains the largest single environmental and watershed cleanup investment in Pennsylvania’s history-- nearly $650 million over five years. 

It was extended in 2002 by Gov. Schweiker through 2012 and doubling its funding to over $1.2 billion by putting a new fee on every ton of municipal waste disposed in the state.

During its first three years, Growing Greener funded 1,100 watershed restoration projects totaling over $333 million ($127 million in public funds, plus $206 million in matching funds).

More than 4,659 acres of abandoned mines will be reclaimed, 5,071 acres of wetlands restored, 487 miles of streamside buffers planted and 1,336 oil and gas wells plugged.

Over the 8 years of the Ridge and Schweiker Administrations more than 33,300 acres of abandoned mines were reclaimed and 967 miles of stream were cleaned up.

But more than funding was put in place to address these issues.

Between 1995 and 2003 more than 125 new watershed groups were started and an estimated 11,000 people were trained and equipped through the Citizens Water Quality Monitoring Program to routinely monitor water quality.

Included in that total were 2,900 volunteers in a unique program-- the PA Senior Environment Corp-- which took advantage of the skills seniors developed over a lifetime and gave them the opportunity to do water testing and other projects.

Watershed coordinators were created in 61 of the 67 county conservation districts to provide assistance to watershed groups as well as a network of technical assistance providers to build capacity among watershed groups.

The Governor’s Award for Watershed Stewardship was created.

We used the website and weekly newsletters on PA Watersheds and Citizen Water Monitoring to keep watershed groups up to speed on the latest projects and techniques so they won’t reinvent the wheel on watershed restoration solutions and to promote more local buy-in and action to restore watersheds..

The Growing Greener Program won a Council of State Governments Innovation Award in 2001.  The PA Senior Environment Corps Program was recognized by the United Nations in the Honour Roll of 500 which also honored individuals like Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau.

Commitment To Restoring PA Watersheds After 2003

As general background you should know that over the last 12 years, $1.9 billion has been cut or diverted from environmental programs to either balance the Pennsylvania state budget or fund programs which could not get funding on their own. 

Staff in the Department of Environmental Protection has been cut nearly 20 percent since 2003, including much of the staff devoted to watershed restoration and working with watershed groups.

The Growing Greener Program was changed from a pay-as-you-go program based on fees from municipal waste generating about $60 million a year, to one where that income is used almost entirely to pay for the 2005 Growing Greener II bond issue debt service with no new funding.

The Growing Greener II bond money ran out in 2011.

The uses of Growing Greener II funding were also expanded to include other purposes, like building a parking garage in Scranton and given to counties for economic development projects.

Before 2003, DEP gave out more than $30 million a year in watershed restoration and mine reclamation grants to watershed groups and conservation districts.  In the current round of Growing Greener Grants, DEP said approximately $18 million will be available, just over half of what was given out before.

A average of 1,600 acres of abandoned mine lands a year were reclaimed as a result of DEP contracts using bond forfeiture and federal funds between 1995 and 2002.  For this calendar year, DEP estimates it will reclaim 283 acres.

Needless to say nearly all information sharing tools were abandoned:, newsletters, most of the technical assistance programs for watershed groups and the Governor’s Award for Watershed Stewardship was eliminated.

DEP’s Citizens’ Volunteer Monitoring Program was drastically cut and the PA Senior Environment Corps was ironically eliminated on its 10th anniversary in 2004.  It was recently revived by the non-profit Natural Abounds at a much reduced scale.

But, there were two bright spots since 2003.

In 2007 the $10 million Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) farm conservation tax credit was passed through the work of a coalition including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, farmers, builders, municipal authorities and conservation districts to fund on-farm best management practices.

Although it has been cut several times, it has been fully funded over the last three years and requests for tax credits have exceeded available funds every year.

In 2012, Act 13, the Marcellus Shale law, was passed and included a new drilling impact fee to provide funding for conservation programs and directly to municipalities and counties affected by drilling.

This year Act 13 provided about $14.5 million for programs to deal with abandoned mine drainage, watershed restoration, water quality monitoring, greenways, trails and recreation and well plugging, restoring some of the Growing Greener funding.

Act 13 also provided funding from drilling impact fees directly to counties and municipalities in affected areas which could be used for watershed restoration, but in practice very little of it has been.

Funding was also made available to county conservation districts from drilling impact fees.

New Vision For The Delaware

If the new vision for the Delaware River Watershed is to be a success, the science has to be converted to political action to bring the resources-- money and staff-- needed to support watershed restoration efforts.


Armstrong Tour Highlights Farm Conservation Practices

Baldwin High School Rain Garden To Ease Flooding

Alcosan Delayed Rate Hikes It Knew Were Needed

Editorial: Alcosan Rate Hikes Public Health Remedy

A Watershed Moment For The Delaware River Basin

Politicians Not In Hurry To Break DRBC Drilling Reg Logjam

Delaware Riverfront Path Opens In Philadelphia

Port Richmond Trail Returns Delaware To Its Neighbors

Op-Ed: Delaware River Economic, Ecological Treasure

DEP Funds 2 Mine Reclamation Projects In Luzerne

October 28 Chesapeake Bay Journal


Go To Preceding Article     Go To Next Article

Return to This PA Environment Digest's Main Page