Pennsylvania’s Lagging Bay Cleanup gets Fiscal Transfusion

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Pennsylvania’s lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts got a fiscal transfusion Tuesday, as federal officials and the commonwealth’s governor pledged to spend a total of $28 million more in the coming year on measures aimed at reducing Bay-fouling pollution from Keystone State farms.

The announcement came as leaders of the Bay restoration effort met at Blandy Experimental Farm, a University of Virginia environmental research outpost in Boyce, to review the past year’s progress and the remaining challenges in their 33-year struggle to revive the nation’s largest estuary.

While there have been encouraging signs of improvements in Bay grasses, crabs and overall water quality, the recovery effort still has a long way to go, officials said. And perhaps the biggest hurdle, several acknowledged, is remedying Pennsylvania’s failure to do its part in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution flowing from its rivers into the Chesapeake. Agriculture, by far, is the largest source of the problem.

“I think Pennsylvania has some explaining to do,” confessed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who was making his first appearance at an annual meeting of the federal-state Bay Program’s Chesapeake Executive Council.

Wolf, who blamed his state’s laggardness on his predecessors, said that largely by shifting around funds in his budget he would put an additional $11.8 million toward a variety of efforts to get more Pennsylvania farmers to apply conservation practices on their lands.

Federal officials, in turn, announced they’d commit more funds to Pennsylvania. Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the USDA would funnel $12.7 million more for farm conservation efforts in the state. And U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency is providing an additional $4 million to help the state with its cleanup activities. “That is not chump change,” McCarthy said of the combined total.

Some of the pledged federal funding for Pennsylvania had previously been announced, though, and a detailed rundown was not available Tuesday. But officials said the overwhelming majority of what was announced represented increased aid for Pennsylvania.

The Executive Council is the top policy-making body for the Bay restoration effort, and includes the governors from all six states in the watershed, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the EPA administrator and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative advisory panel.

The boost in Bay spending by Pennsylvania comes as the Democratic Wolf administration continues to spar over the state budget with a Republican-dominated legislature. In the absence of increases in their budgets, Wolf and his spokesman said that agency heads had been tasked with finding money to redirect toward the Bay effort without compromising other programs.

Of the state total, about $2.5 million more is to be spent on planting trees along rivers and streams, an important buffer against polluted runoff, while an extra $4 million would go toward putting in other high-priority conservation practices. Another $1.5 million is earmarked for helping farmers develop conservation plans — a pressing need, as state officials have estimated that 70 percent of farmers lack the legally required documents. The state recently launched a campaign to inspect 10 percent of the 33,000 farms in the Bay watershed over the next year.

The boost in federal funding likewise follows months of public and private appeals to the Obama administration. The Bay Commission worked through the summer with the Wolf administration and Pennsylvania lawmakers to press their case for more financial help. Wolf wrote USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in July seeking an additional $10 million, noting in the letter that there’s a backlog of $52 million in unfulfilled requests for USDA conservation assistance from Pennsylvania farmers in the Bay watershed.

Bonnie, the USDA undersecretary, said that administration officials have spent the last several months looking for unspent federal dollars that could be rounded up as the fiscal year drew to a close and sent to help Pennsylvania. The USDA’s funding to help farmers put in conservation practices was cut by Congress two years ago, he said, but the administration hopes to increase its aid to Pennsylvania.

Still, Bonnie acknowledged that even with the recent boost, USDA support lagged behind what was available just a few years ago because of overall cuts in federal farm conservation programs.

Maryland State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Bay Commission’s chairman, pointed out that Pennsylvania has already spent about $4 billion on Bay restoration efforts since the 1980s but still is a long way from achieving the pollution reductions needed to improve Bay water quality. About 55 percent of all the nitrogen contributing to the Chesapeake’s algae blooms and oxygen-starved “dead zones,” Middleton noted, comes from Pennsylvania farmers.

“Pennsylvania’s farmers are making progress, but there is a lot of ground to make up,” he said in remarks prepared for the council meeting. He also pointed out that Maryland and Virginia, which have made more progress in reducing Bay pollution, have both benefitted from establishing “robust” dedicated funding for water quality improvement projects, such as wastewater treatment plant upgrades. The Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Bay Commission are working on legislative proposals for a dedicated revenue source for environmental initiatives there.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who missed the meeting after getting his final cancer treatment Monday, sent a letter expressing his support for the Bay restoration but stressing the need to seek more innovative ways to cover the towering costs of the Bay cleanup, including seeking private investment and trying market-based approaches, such as nutrient pollution trading.

“That is an area where we all recognize more needs to be done,” said Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, who read Hogan’s letter to the council.

Environmentalists welcomed the increased funding announced Tuesday, while still seeking clarification on how much of it was really new. Yet they cautioned that even $28 million represents just a “down payment” toward closing the state’s huge shortfall in meeting its nutrient and sediment reduction obligations under the Bay’s “pollution diet,” or total maximum daily load.

William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he was pleased that officials had appeared to heed his group’s recent call for the USDA to pump $20 million more into farm conservation efforts in five south-central Pennsylvania counties, which the environmental group said were the state’s leading sources of Bay pollution. EPA Administrator McCarthy, for one, had singled out the Bay Foundation for praise during the public portion of the Executive Council meeting.
Though the extra USDA funding is to be spent across 11 Pennsylvania counties, Baker didn’t object.

“The really good news is that this is exactly the right time to be putting more money into restoration,” he said, “when we’re seeing progress.” He warned against the “Lake Erie effect,” in which he said funding for cleaning up one of the Great Lakes fell off just as the effort appeared to be succeeding, and the water body declined again.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

By Tim Wheeler

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