Pennsylvania officials hope the third time proves to be the charm when it comes to Chesapeake Bay cleanup plans.
Two earlier plans, one submitted in 2019 and another late last year, were widely panned for failing to achieve the state’s pollution reduction goals and for a lack of funding.
The 2019 version spurred suits from other states and environmental groups, contending that Pennsylvania’s failure to curb water-fouling nutrients would keep the region from reaching its 2025 Bay cleanup goals.
The second version, submitted in December, also fell short, spurring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April to ramp up water quality inspections in the state and threaten to take further actions unless the state submitted an improved plan within 90 days.
On July 19, Pennsylvania environmental officials responded with an updated 200-page document promising that all of the state’s needed cleanup actions will be in place by 2025.
Acting Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Ramez Ziadeh called the plan “well-grounded” and said that it “advances the extraordinary actions to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution” in the state’s portion of the Bay watershed.
The plan includes a significant influx of funding, thanks to the approval of a new state budget that sets aside $220 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to create a Clean Streams Fund. The money will help farmers install runoff control measures such as streamside buffers and manure storage facilities.
The budget also steers additional federal money to a variety of other programs that can help with water quality issues.
Unlike Maryland and Virginia, the state lacked a dedicated cost-share program to help the 33,000 farms in its portion of the Chesapeake watershed, which are its largest source of nutrients to the Bay. That shortcoming had been repeatedly flagged by the EPA and others.
The EPA’s response to the funding package was positive. It organized two news conferences to praise what Adam Ortiz, administrator of the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region, called a “historic” action.
“What we’re talking about today is a remarkable turning point in the restoration of clean water and the Chesapeake Bay,” Ortiz said.
But, he said the agency needed 4–8 weeks to fully review Pennsylvania’s revised plan. That means it will likely be late August or early September before it determines whether the plan is adequate.
The new federal funding will be spent over three years, but that appears to fall short of filling the $324 million-a-year funding gap the state had identified in its 2019 plan. And there is no guarantee that funding will continue when the federal money is gone.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Scott Martin, a Lancaster County Republican who helped negotiate the funding package, acknowledged that the state needs to come up with long-term funding.
“We got the program started. That’s great,” he said. “But eventually, the [Clean Streams Fund] is going to have to keep finding new resources in order to continue. And that’s our next challenge that we look forward to tackling.”
It’s also unclear whether the EPA will agree that the plan meets the state’s nitrogen reduction goal.
The aim is to reduce the state’s annual load of nitrogen to the Bay by 32.5 million pounds. Most of that would be accomplished by ramping up efforts to control farm runoff, such as planting nutrient-absorbing cover crops, promoting improved soil health or planting streamside buffers.
But about 9 million pounds of that total would come from counting agricultural runoff control practices installed years ago that the EPA says have exceeded their expected lifespan and are no longer effective and by counting other actions the EPA has not accepted in the past.
Jill Whitcomb, director of the Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay Office, said the state has had conversations with the EPA about those practices and hopes the issue will be addressed.
“We strongly believe, and other Bay states agree, that the EPA should provide credit for historically implemented BMPs,” Whitcomb said. “Otherwise, the modeling will continue to inaccurately ignore the real-world nutrient and sediment reductions Pennsylvania has achieved, and continues to achieve, from these BMPs.”
Indeed, the exact status of Pennsylvania’s efforts is uncertain.
Computer model estimates — which the EPA uses to gauge cleanup progress — show Pennsylvania has made little progress in reducing nutrient-laden runoff from its farms.
But water quality monitoring shows downward trends in nutrients from the Susquehanna River, which drains nearly half of the state. Monitoring in Lancaster County, the most intensive agricultural area of the state, also shows a downward nutrient trend.
And last year, underwater grass beds in the Susquehanna Flats, located in Maryland near the mouth of the river, expanded by 13%, while grass beds overall in Maryland decreased slightly. Underwater grasses are a critical habitat and particularly sensitive to poor water quality. Nutrient reduction goals are in part aimed at helping them expand.
Pennsylvania does not directly border the Chesapeake but sends the largest amount of nutrient pollution to the Bay of any state.
From 2009 through 2020, the state reduced its annual nitrogen load by 7.3 million pounds, according to computer models, mostly through wastewater treatment plant upgrades. That left 32.5 million pounds of reductions to be achieved by 2025 — more than three-quarters of all nitrogen reductions needed from the entire Bay watershed.
Pennsylvania’s cleanup job has always been daunting. All of the states have struggled with making significant nitrogen reductions from farms and developed lands, and Pennsylvania has far more of both than any other state in the watershed.
Maryland and Virginia have made most of their progress by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, but only a small portion of Pennsylvania’s nutrients come from wastewater, and most of its plants have already been upgraded.
Critics contend that the state has made the situation worse, as the legislature until now has refused to provide substantial Bay-related funding, and short staffing in environmental agencies has resulted in less oversight of existing programs.
Such problems spurred Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, the District of Columbia and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to sue the EPA in 2020, contending it was not doing enough to prod Pennsylvania toward effective action.
It’s uncertain whether the new plan, and new funding, will help resolve the suit.
Hilary Falk, president of the Bay Foundation, called the new funding “a tremendous step forward to bringing clean water to Pennsylvania and the Bay downstream.”
She said she was hopeful of forging a settlement agreement with the EPA, but that meeting Bay goals requires more than funding. “We believe that assistance must come with accountability,” she said.