Pa. hindering Chesapeake Bay cleanup

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Pennsylvania is falling far short of goals for reducing agricultural water pollutants and urban and suburban runoff that are damaging the ecological health of the Chesapeake Bay, according to a new report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Choose Clean Water Coalition.

And bay advocates say a big reason is the state Department of Environmental Protection cuts in staffing and funding for programs promoting agricultural best practices.

The report released today?" data-html-class="libCommentCollapse"> shows that the state, which is the largest contributor of nitrogen pollution damaging the bay, isn't close to meeting goals for planting stream and river side forest buffers, conservation tillage, nutrient application management and erosion and sedimentation control — all agricultural practices aimed at improving soil health and reducing sediment and nitrogen runoff.

And although Pennsylvania’s programs aimed at increasing acreage covered by conservation plans and barnyard runoff controls and improving storm water infiltration practices exceeded their 2013 goals, the report found, they are not on pace to achieve 60 percent of the needed reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by 2017 and all of the reductions by 2025, as required by the “Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.”

The blueprint’s milestones were established in 2010 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to measure progress toward reducing water pollutants from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia that have caused fish-killing dead zones, and damaged other marine life, the commercial shellfish industry and bay grasses for decades in the nation’s largest estuary. The EPA is in the process of reviewing the report.

“We are very concerned Pennsylvania will not meet its 2017 pollution reduction goals. The gap between what has been done and what needs to be done is substantial,” said Jennifer Quinn, central Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture, a state-wide environmental organization.

Ms. Qiuinn said the Susquehanna River, which flows for 440 miles through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, carrying half of the water entering the Chesapeake, plays a controlling role in bay health.

“What happens in the Susquehanna and its tributaries doesn't stay in Pennsylvania, and what’s happening is we are meeting fewer of our goals for agricultural pollution and urban and suburban storm water runoff control,” she said, adding that state DEP funding reductions have hurt progress toward the water pollution reduction goals.

The state-by-state milestone assessments of the 2012-13 commitments made by the bay watershed states show that all states are deficient in meeting one or more of their goals, but Pennsylvania especially is “losing momentum” toward meeting its agricultural goals, said Jarry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Pennsylvania.

“The conservation plans, required for every farm, are not new. They've been required of every farm since 1972, yet it seems a significant percentage of farms either have outdated plans or no plans at all to protect their soil and keep it out of streams,” Mr. Campbell said. “If we have laws we have to be serious about updating the plans and adhering to them. The DEP, through its Watershed Implementation Plan is committed to working with farmers to get conservation plans in place and enforcing them. With more than 40,000 farms in the watershed there’s a lot of work to do.”

Amanda Witman, a DEP spokeswoman, said the state remains committed to the 2017 goals and the improvement of bay ecology. Since 1985, phosphorus loading has been reduced 25 percent, nitrogen by 10 percent and sediment by 15 percent, she said. And the state has spent more than $3.8 billion in grants, loans and program investments toward Chesapeake Bay restoration.

She said some of the program deficiencies cited in the report, including those in the conservation and nutrient management areas, are the result of data collection errors by the state, and its performance in some of the programs is better than depicted in the report. The Regional Agricultural Watershed Assessment Program will help to correct this reporting error, she said, by partnering with local conservation districts and farmers to identify best management practices best-suited for their operations.

“We think we’re making progress and looking at the big picture over the long term, we are,” Ms. Witman said. “We also recognize there is more work to be done.”

Coincidentally, she said, Gov. Tom Corbett will travel to Annapolis, Md., on Monday, when the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council will sign a new agreement establishing common bay restoration goals. The first Chesapeake Bay agreement was signed in 1983. Updates were approved in 1987 and in 2000.

Responding to the slow pace of bay restoration, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in May 2009 to spur its cleanup, and the next year the EPA set limits to reduce the pollutants pouring into the bay from upstream sources. Today’s report marks the first time progress toward those limits has been measured and evaluated.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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