The view north up the Delaware River from the Reading Railroad Bridge between Ewing, N.J., and Lower Makefield Township, Pa.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Members of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee heard testimony on Monday on a bill to protect existing environmental buffers near Pennsylvania waterways and give local and state entities oversight on their implementation.
House Bill 1275, sponsored by state Rep. Joe Webster (D-Montgomery) would require property owners to provide a minimum 100-foot riparian buffer along each side of a surface body of water, with a minimum 300-foot buffer for streams that have been designated as High Quality or Exceptional Value by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
The bill would also allow municipalities across the commonwealth to adopt regulations on riparian buffers and would “provide additional powers and duties” to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for enforcement.
Riparian buffers are areas of vegetation such as trees and shrubs that act as filters, shielding waterways from runoff and pollutants. Buffers have been implemented across Pennsylvania, including on farmland, to help the commonwealth meet its Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction goals.
In addition to filtering out pollutants and runoff, experts said that shade from trees near riverbanks can help regulate water temperatures in instances of extreme heat, made more frequent by climate change, making conditions more favorable for wildlife such as trout.
“As our communities in the larger society work to improve our local stream, avoid to total maximum daily load goals and meet downstream goals for the Chesapeake Bay, these increased outcomes become critically important,” Matthew Ehrhart, director of watershed restoration at the Stroud Water Research Center, an independent research institution, told lawmakers.
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State Rep. Martin Causer (R-McKean), who serves as minority chair of the committee, said he was concerned the bill was “one-size-fits-all” and was worried about its impact on the rights of property owners, calling it a “significant taking of private property.”
Experts countered that the condition of natural resources can also affect economic value.
“While legal arguments for balancing property rights of the public good are beyond the scope of my expertise,” Roland Wall, director of the Patrick Center for Environmental Research at Drexel University said. “I would point out that water quality, ecological health and biodiversity all have substantial economic value for landowners that should be considered in shaping this sort of legislation.”
Maya Van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a citizen action organization working to protect the Delaware River watershed, argued that the riparian buffers help the commonwealth fulfill its constitutional obligation, protecting Pennsylvanians’ rights to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
“I think it’s very important for us to recognize that when people undertake activities on their own private property, it has implications for the private property rights, health and safety and economic value of other neighboring properties or those who are downstream,” Van Rossum said. “So, it is very appropriate that we have legislation that ensures that when people are undertaking activities on their properties, it’s not having those same adverse effects or it’s not having adverse consequences for others.”
As Pennsylvania experiences an increase in heavy rainfall events due to human-caused climate change, experts told lawmakers that riparian buffers will protect homeowners by preventing erosion and mitigating flooding.
“A forested stream corridor is more resilient in the face of changing rainfall patterns and land use, enabling the stream channel to adapt and respond to changing conditions,” Ehrhart said.
While lawmakers heard testimony from experts on Monday, the 25-member committee will need to hold a vote on the bill before it can advance further.
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