Despite progress, Pa. still has work to do to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, environmental experts tell lawmakers

Lawmakers and aides on the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee meet at the Pennsylvania Farm Show on Wednesday, Jan. 8.

When conservationists and farmers convened at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg on Wednesday, they had good news and bad news for a panel of state lawmakers that spearheads environmental legislation.

The good news? The Keystone State has made big strides to reduce the agricultural pollutants it sends to the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary in Maryland and Virginia that gets half of its freshwater from the Susquehanna River.

But rising pollution from land development, coupled with a paucity of state support for farmers who need to control runoff, have put Pennsylvania far behind its neighbors in a federally agreed-upon effort to clean up the Bay.

“Money buys progress,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative body whose members include Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. 

Swanson was one of the experts who appeared at a Senate Environmental and Resource Committee hearing at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Wednesday, where lawmakers received a briefing on the state’s Chesapeake Bay clean-up efforts.

Pennsylvania is one of six states, plus the District of Columbia, that signed an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014, aimed at repairing the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.

Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia bear the brunt of the clean-up efforts. Of the three, Pennsylvania has made the slowest progress in reducing pollution.

Pennsylvania has a larger agricultural sector than its neighbors, which means it accounts for a larger share of the bay’s pollution.

But as Swanson noted Wednesday, Virginia and Maryland have also created new revenue streams to support Chesapeake Bay clean-up efforts, Swanson said. 

Virginia funds its projects with fees on rental cars, and Maryland assesses an annual fee on dwellings connected to septic systems.

Pennsylvania, on the other hand, “doesn’t have those tools,” Swanson said.

She recommended that Pennsylvania follow the other states’ leads to raise the $324 million dollars it needs to implement its water improvement plan by 2025. 

Pennsylvania is ‘broken’ link in Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, report says

But State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, who chairs his chamber’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said raising that much money through new fees or taxes “isn’t going to happen.”

Even if the state generated more than $300 million in new taxes and fees by 2025, “I don’t know that we’d have the wherewithal to spend it,” added Yaw, who is also the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the tri-state legislative assembly that includes lawmakers from Virginia and Maryland.

“The chances of us meeting the 2025 suggested [goals] are not likely,” Yaw said after the committee hearing Wednesday.

Yaw knows that could jeopardize Pennsylvania’s standing before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a signatory to the water recovery plan that Pennsylvania entered in 2014.

But he said it’s unclear what the federal government could do if the state ignores the 2025 targets, which are designed to stabilize the Bay’s nutrient levels and ensure long-term viability for its ecosystems.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency could withhold grants or other funds from the state as a consequence. It’s temporarily withheld funding from the state twice before, according to the Bay Journal, a news source dedicated to the Chesapeake. 

Yaw thinks it’s more likely that Pennsylvania will get a slap on the wrist.

He compared the situation to Pennsylvania’s delay in rolling out Real ID licenses, an enhanced form of identification made mandatory by a 2005 change to federal law. 

Pennsylvania, along with more than a dozen other states, initially refused to comply with the federal Real ID Act. The state was granted an extension and implemented Real ID last year. 

If it blows past its Chesapeake Bay targets, “nobody knows what the EPA will do,” Yaw said. 

‘We just need time and money’

Yaw, whose district touches the New York border, said it can be hard to convince Pennsylvanians in far-flung reaches of the state to care about the Chesapeake Bay. 

But one priority he says all lawmakers can support is bolstering stream and water quality.

“If we have clean water, we don’t have to worry about the Bay,” Yaw said. He later added, “we just need time and money.”

Legislative Republicans have generally opposed policies — such as a new tax on shale gas — that would raise revenues for state projects.

But a trio of bills working their way through the General Assembly could help farmers reduce pollution runoff, and also appropriate money for water projects, Yaw said.

Among those bills is a measure Yaw sponsored to put $20 million dollars into a dedicated Water Improvement Fund.

The state would use that money to “purchase” nitrogen reductions from private bidders who can prove to the Department of Environmental Protection that they’ve cut pollution. 

The proposal would fulfill Swanson’s recommendation that Pennsylvania create a dedicated fund for water improvement projects.

But even if it’s signed into law this year, the new fund would expend only $100 million by 2025 — just one-third of what’s required to fully fund the state’s water improvement plan.

Yaw said he wouldn’t support new fines and fees like the ones assessed in Maryland and Virginia. But according to Swanson, those policies can go a long way in restoring water health. 

“When you have a water-rich state, you need to be good stewards,” Swanson said. “But that requires money.”