‘There’s a water crisis in Pennsylvania’: Environmental advocates call for clean water funding

PennFuture Director of Policy Ezra P. Thrush speaks about clean water in the Capitol on May 1, 2019. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Environmental advocates on Wednesday presented a grim picture of polluted streams, plastic-filled rivers, and underfunded state departments as they called on the Legislature to pony up more money for clean water programs.

But the Capitol rotunda press conference was not without a moment of levity, provided by Pennsylvania’s newest celebrity.

“I also want to do a quick shout-out to our new state amphibian, the hellbender,” state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said. “I look forward to having them in streams throughout Pennsylvania.”

Sturla is once again the sponsor of legislation that would allow municipalities to require the erection of fencing to keep livestock out of streams, reducing the amount of animal waste and giving creatures like the hellbender clean water to survive in.

It’s a serious problem in Pennsylvania, where a quarter of streams are considered impaired.

In April, the Department of Environmental Protection released its annual report on the health of the state’s streams, rivers, and lakes — and the findings showed a lot of room for improvement.

Pennsylvania’s waterways are categorized by their intended use: for aquatic life, water supply, fish consumption, or recreation. The April report measured if a waterway is meeting that goal, is impaired in some way, or remains unassessed.

For streams that support aquatic life, agriculture is the top cause of impairment followed by abandoned mine drainage and stormwater runoff. The vast majority of streams intended for recreation are unassessed.

Lakes, too, are severely impacted by agriculture, according to the report.

“There’s a water crisis in Pennsylvania,” Jacquelyn Bonomo, CEO and president of the environmental nonprofit PennFuture, said Wednesday.

PennFuture, with the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, PennEnvironment, and the Choose Clean Water Coalition, want the state to dedicate a source of funding for clean water programs. That could be achieved through a small water use fee on withdrawals and consumption of more than 10,000 gallons per day, or by no longer exempting bottled drinks from sales tax.

The groups also called on the General Assembly not to divert money from special funds to cover administrative costs for the DEP and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and to provide the agreed-upon amount of funding to the Delaware and Susquehanna River Basin commissions.

A package of “regulatory reform” bills supported by Republicans and dubbed the “Dirty Dozen” by Democrats was also targeted by the environmental advocates.

The House floor was the site of a spirited debate on the proposals Tuesday, with at least one Republican invoking organizing queen Marie Kondo to argue for a reduction in regulations. One bill would give the Legislature veto power over any new “economically significant regulation.” Another would require state agencies to contract with third-party professionals to review delayed permit requests.

Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, said the proposals would “rollback environmental regulations … to protect our water, protect our air.”

“With your help, we were able to stop one of those bills on the floor — something that doesn’t happen very often here in Harrisburg,” she said, adding that four of the bills did pass.

On the flipside, the advocates offered full-throated support for a package of Democratic bills targeted at single-use plastics.

“Nothing we use for five minutes should bob in the Delaware for hundreds of years,” said Stephanie Wein, clean water and conservation advocate for the nonprofit PennEnvironment.

The bills would ban foam takeout containers, make plastic straws available by request only, and tack a two-cent fee on non-reusable plastic bags.

Unlike the regulatory reform package, the plastic bills have little chance of passing in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. The legislation would also fly in the face of a project embraced by both Democrats and Republicans: the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, which will produce plastics.

But advocates insisted Wednesday the issue of clean water is not a partisan one, but instead something that threatens industries that are important to all people.

“It’s actually possible that we are threatening the top drivers of our economy and economic prosperity derived by agriculture and tourism,” PennFuture’s Bonomo said, “by an insistence that we build out natural gas and petrochemicals at any cost to the public, including our clean water, with little or no cost to those industries.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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