Op-Ed: Here’s How PA Can Get Smarter About Cleaning Up Our Rivers & Streams
By Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming), Member Chesapeake Bay Commission
With 86,000 miles of streams and rivers, Pennsylvania is one of the most water-rich states in the country.
Unfortunately, much of that water is pollution-rich as well. In the House of Representatives, I and a few of my colleagues are advancing the concept of a dedicated Water Quality Improvement Fund to tackle these clean water issues across the Commonwealth.
Pennsylvanians should support this important measure.
Though our waterways comprise just 7 percent of the national total, we have roughly 16 percent of the nation's impaired waters – more than double the next most polluted state (Michigan).
The sources of pollution are many and vary across our state's three main watersheds – the Delaware, Chesapeake and Ohio basins – but the most common are runoff from farms, urban pavement and abandoned mine drainage.
Pennsylvania has made much progress in improving the water quality of our rivers, creeks, streams and lakes.
This progress comes mainly from upgrades to "point" sources of pollution, such as sewage treatment facilities and industrial treatment plants. However, we have wrung about as much as we can from those sources.
Right now, our biggest challenges are "non-point" sources of pollution – runoff from agricultural operations; suburban and urban stormwater systems; parking lots and roadways; and acid mine drainage.
Clean water is essential to our lives. We drink it, bathe in it and play in it. Our number one industry in Pennsylvania, agriculture, depends on it. We produce manufactured goods, energy and a myriad of food products with it.
Degraded water quality is a burden to all of us, and ignoring these problems won't make them go away
As a father, grandfather and outdoorsman in the beautiful Penn's Woods, I feel obliged to protect our resources and our children's health.
As an elected state official, I have a duty to uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution, which establishes clean water as a right, and designates the Commonwealth as trustee of this common property. As a fiscal conservative, I am vigilant about protecting taxpayer money.
A statewide Water Quality Improvement Fund, matched with a targeted incentive-based spending program, can help solve our water pollution problems cost-effectively.
The greatest bang for the buck is in "green infrastructure" to clean the water before it gets into streams. These practices include stream-side forests, rain gardens, no-till agriculture, manure management, and cover crops, among others.
Farming is the largest source of nutrient pollution.
The nitrogen and phosphorus contained in animal waste and fertilizer that sullies our waters locally and downstream in places such as the Chesapeake Bay.
Many farms lack the infrastructure and techniques to prevent nutrient pollution. Yet farmers provide our food and generate a whopping $61 billion in economic productivity annually. They are also our most important partners in cleaning up the water, and we don't want to threaten their livelihoods.
"Best Management Practices" cost money, and farmers cannot carry that burden alone. Unfortunately, current funding is inadequate.
A 2013 Penn State study estimated the need for nutrient reduction methods for the Chesapeake Bay watershed alone to be $378 million, more than 60 percent above current funding for the entire state. USDA programs are over-subscribed.
The federal government can pay for only one of five conservation practices farmers themselves demand. Clearly, more funding is needed.
Because some farmers might not participate in public cost-share programs, we should also emphasize technical assistance, education and outreach.
Only 30 percent of farmers have conservation plans, and state conservation planners are overwhelmed with demand. We need to triple the number of trained planners. The Fund would support this critical conservation assistance.
Towns and suburbs need to do their part as well. Developed areas pollute because of inadequate stormwater systems. Yet many communities do not comply with Act 167 stormwater planning requirements. That needs to change. All of us pollute the water, and all of us should clean it up.
Finally, we should focus on using the carrot rather than the stick – for example, requiring farmers and municipalities to comply with state environmental regulations as a precondition for receiving state funds or tax credits.
This would get the job done faster and with far less expense.
None of these efforts are easy or cheap, but by being innovative we can improve our water quality and optimize state spending.
A statewide Water Quality Improvement Fund will make Pennsylvania a cleaner, healthier and more valuable place, and protect our downstream neighbors as well. That's a return on our public investment we can be proud of.
Rep. Garth D. Everett represents parts of Union and Lycoming counties. He is also the chairman of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission. He can be contacted at 717-787-5270 or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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