Op-Ed: Conservation Efforts Lose Out In State Budget
By Len Lichvar
Financial budgets by their nature are always difficult and challenging and no one is ever 100 percent satisfied because there will always have to be compromises.
However, the recently passed Pennsylvania state budget compromises natural resource conservation to a level that is both inequitable and inappropriate.
To set the stage, Pennsylvania's most recent water quality report verifies that 40 percent of its 86,000 miles of waterways are in violation of the state's water quality standards due primarily to sediment runoff and abandoned mine drainage (AMD).
The state's commitment to reach its Chesapeake Bay pollution goals by 2025 is woefully behind in its efforts and portions of the Susquehanna River were finally declared impaired by the PA DEP verifying that the largest conduit to the bay, slicing through the heart of the state, has been and continues to be severely impacted by pollution.
There is a $1 billion backlog in state park and forest maintenance. Public agencies, which are on the front lines of resource protection, such as conservation districts and the state Fish and Boat Commission, have not seen their funding increased since 2005 and that forces them to operate with 2019 expenses on 2005 incomes severely limiting their programs and capacities.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) has had its funding slashed up to 30 percent in the past that continues to limit their ability to perform their many oversight and assistance providing roles.
Locally and across the state aging AMD passive treatment systems, such as the ones on the Stonycreek and Casselman rivers, in Somerset County are in dire need of maintenance and complete rehab yet still no dedicated funds have ever been created to cover the long term costs of these critical water quality improvement facilities.
Apparently underfunded and understaffed public sector agencies and shrinking numbers of overwhelmed watershed group and non-profit volunteers are supposed to just continue to protect and conserve our natural resources that our recreational, eco-tourism, business, industry and agriculture industries require for their sustainability and every citizen depends on for their livelihood and quality of life.
That is because the state legislature, instead of adding to the empowerment of these dedicated stewards of our resources, provided the ability to cut $16 million from the Environmental Stewardship Fund that funds the Growing Greener Grant Program, AMD abatement and the preservation of essential farmland and other conservation initiatives.
The state's recycling fund was also given a $10 million capacity to be slashed. The money can now be redirected toward sustaining the day to day operations of DEP and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (PA DCNR) rather than using funds from the general fund for that purpose.
Instead of restoring conservation funding to appropriate levels the budget plays a difficult to follow funding route shrouded by a shell game that clearly demonstrates that conservation is not a priority in Pennsylvania.
Of course the push back is always that if these agencies and programs were funded properly taxes would have to be raised.
Innovative new sources of money, that is not tax money, from such sources as the governor's proposed severance fee and or even better a nominal fee on water usage that would raise millions if not billions of new capital, without undue burden on the providers, never get any serious consideration.
To potentially make matters worse -- if that is possible – the state Senate recently passed Senate Bill 619 by a 26 24 vote.
Although this is not part of the budget, this legislation would make major changes to the determination of water pollution under the state's Clean Stream Law effectively making spills and discharges to waterways no longer pollution and most likely taking away the ability of PA DEP and the Fish and Boat Commission to even enforce current pollution laws.
The bill now goes to the state House for consideration.
Pennsylvania used to be a nationwide leader in conservation and there still are legislators and others today who lead in that direction, but not as many as in the past.
A few previous examples of many include the environmental awareness of the nation being created by Pennsylvania's own Rachel Carson. Maurice Goddard almost made good on his promise of a state park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvanian and former governor Tom Ridge's administration originated Growing Greener.
Perhaps someday Pennsylvania will be great again in the stewardship of its natural resources that are the foundation upon which its economy and pride of place is built. However, today is not that day.
Len Lichvar, of Boswell, Somerset County has been both a professional and volunteer in natural resource conservation for over 30 years. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of any organization to which he is affiliated.
Related Articles This Week:
Op-Ed: Step Up Support To Clean Rivers, Streams - Harry Campbell, CBF-PA
[Posted: July 10, 2019]
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