Bird and marsh grass along the Chesapeake Bay. (Image via the Virginia Office of Natural Resources).
State environmental officials Wednesday outlined a revised plan to meet “100 percent” of their pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed by a federally mandated deadline in 2025, albeit with a few conditions.
The announcement by the state Department of Environmental Protection comes after a litany of criticism and legal challenges from neighboring states Virginia and Maryland, the District of Columbia, and environmental advocacy groups that the Keystone State wasn’t meeting its fair share of the cleanup burden.
The news, shared by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), included changes to the 2019 Phase Three Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), which drew criticism after it was revealed that Pennsylvania would fall short of nutrient and sediment pollution reduction goals by nearly 9 million pounds of nitrogen per year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated in 2010 that watershed states, including New York, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, reduce their nutrient and sediment pollution levels by 2025. Pennsylvania will need to shed a total of 32.5 million pounds of nitrogen and 0.85 million pounds of phosphorus from Bay-bound waterways to meet the requirements.
While the amended Phase Three WIP, submitted to the EPA on Dec. 31, 2021, outlines exactly how the commonwealth intends to meet its 2025 nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution targets, DEP stopped short of issuing a guarantee, citing the need for continued funding to state and local initiatives implementing the necessary changes.
“ … Pennsylvania will meet 100 percent of its 2025 targets, provided funding support is in place for state, county-level, and sector initiatives and EPA modeling is updated to accurately reflect pollution reduction measures already on the ground,” a statement from the department reads. “The $324.2 million annual funding need identified in the original Phase 3 WIP remains.”
“Any plan is only as effective as the financial, technical, and oversight support made at the state and federal levels to implement it,” Harry Campbell, Science Policy and Advocacy Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Pennsylvania said. “State and federal leaders need to follow-through on pending legislation that supports the many boots on the ground, landowners, and communities working hard every day to protect and restore local rivers and streams. They want to do more.”
Campbell pointed to potential funding sources for pollution-reduction efforts that are currently before the General Assembly.
“Legislation before the Pennsylvania General Assembly proposes that $250 million of the $7 billion in American Rescue Plan money the Commonwealth received go into a Clean Streams Fund,” Campbell said. “Half of the new fund would support the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP). The ACAP is a statewide agriculture cost-share program and an opportunity to fund local farm projects through county conservation districts.”
The department reports that as of 2020, Pennsylvania has reduced nitrogen pollution by 6.77 million pounds and phosphorus pollution by 0.3 million pounds.
To continue toward its 2025 targets, the 34 Pennsylvania counties in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed completed Countywide Action Plans, the department reported.
Efforts to follow the best management practices (BMPs), included by each county in its plan, are already underway. Adopting the BMPs outlined in the action plans will cause the largest reduction – 16.8 million pounds – in nitrogen pollution of all the amended WIPs initiatives, according to DEP.
“With all counties on board and unprecedented progress underway, Pennsylvania is at an exciting turning point in improving local water quality in the watershed. The Phase 3 WIP Amendment sustains this new momentum by ensuring that we have a clear, accurate path forward.”
– DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell
While further nitrogen-reduction measures, accounting for another 6.1 million pounds of nitrogen, are expected to come from agricultural, forestry and stormwater management initiatives statewide, the amended WIP also credits Pennsylvania with a 7.8 million pound reduction in nitrogen and a 366.7 million pound reduction in sediment from “structural BMPs” that were implemented a decade – or more – ago.
“Due to the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership’s BMP Verification Framework Guidance, the EPA model automatically excludes BMPs that reach the end of their credit duration if not reinspected. This results in thousands of functioning BMPs in Pennsylvania – many of them having been federally cost-shared with tax-payer dollars – are considered expired. However, data from Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland show many structural BMPs continue to function beyond the end of their assigned credit duration,” the department said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Pennsylvania confirmed that while the organization is still reviewing the amended WIP, CBF leaders saw it as a “glimmer of hope.”
“To the credit of the many agency workers, farmers, and local leaders, work in Pennsylvania, while woefully behind, is accelerating,” CBF Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration Alison Prost said in a statement. “The commonwealth led the watershed in reducing nitrogen pollution last year, and proposed legislation there would create a new program and provide funding to assist farmers in reducing pollution.
Prost called on Pennsylvania to “follow Virginia’s lead and invest a significant portion of the federal stimulus dollars now in its rainy-day fund to invest in agricultural conservation practices.”
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture should also step up and increase conservation funding in the region,” she said.
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