Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Senate Committees Get Update On Chesapeake Bay TMDL Progress

Members of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs and Environmental Resources and Energy Committees today held an informational meeting on efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop a federal court-ordered Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Plan for the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
In Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed includes two-thirds of the state.
John Capacasa, Director of EPA's Water Protection Division, and Robert Koroncai, Chesapeake Bay TMDL Manager provided an overview of the TMDL planning process which has EPA completing a draft TMDL for public comment by August, followed by public input meetings on the plan through October and a final plan by December of this year.
In response to questions from Senators, they outlined the support EPA and the federal government have given states to help meet this mandate, including $188 million in additional federal Farm Bill aid, doubling implementation grants to states, increases in the Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund and additional federal stimulus dollars.
They noted meeting Bay cleanup standards also has local benefits in Pennsylvania watersheds, including not only more efficient and healthy farming operations, but also benefits to local streams which many times fail to meet clean water standards themselves.
Both officials emphasized Pennsylvania has been a good partner in Bay cleanup efforts noting much has been accomplished since 1983 when the program began. However, they said EPA's new approach to Bay cleanup includes a new level of accountability for results from states.
If states do not get the results they commit to, then EPA would have to act on its own to "backstop" state efforts by taking one or more of these steps-- expand NPDES permit coverage to currently unregulated sources, object to NPDES permits and increase permit oversight, require net improvement offsets, establish finer scale waste load and load allocations in the Bay TMDL, require additional reductions of loadings from point sources, Increase and target federal enforcement, condition or redirect federal grants and promulgate federal local nutrient water quality standards.
State Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding told the committees it is "imperative" Pennsylvania meet the clean water goals for the Chesapeake Bay and at the same time have economically viable and thriving farms and communities in Pennsylvania.
He noted 55 percent of all nitrogen reductions made in the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed were made by improvements on farms. He said, however, "There is a critical shortage of technical assistance and compliance oversight staff in Pennsylvania" to help farmers meet the Bay mandates.
He said federal funding is 'extremely important" to continued efforts to improve water quality in the Bay watershed "because of the financial limitations within our own state budget here in Pennsylvania and at the county consideration district level."
Secretary Redding said we have to understand this is a 15-year process and recommended--
-- EPA not simply require more permits;
-- Set clear obligations for farmers to meet;
-- Create a "safe-hold" for farmers meeting their obligations;
-- Provide more critically important technical assistance; and
-- Provide better and simpler tools for farmers to use.
He said to him, TMDL means-- Time, Money, (conservation) Districts and Leadership.
In written testimony, DEP Secretary John Hanger said the state has achieved 46 percent of the nitrogen reductions and 64 percent of the phosphorus reductions required by the Bay program. The new Bay milestones, however, require the state to reduce nitrogen by another 30.9 million pounds and phosphorus by 1 million pounds by 2025.
He said DEP is engaging stakeholders in the Bay cleanup effort to help develop the initial Watershed Implementation Plan set to be submitted to EPA in draft by June 1. The first meeting of the stakeholders group is March 31.
The first 2011 milestone requires Pennsylvania to reduce nitrogen by 7.3 million pounds and phosphorus by 300,000 pounds.
As part of an effort to take credit for every existing farm conservation practice, including privately funded practices, he said DEP and other partners are doing county "sweeps" for best management practices that have not shown up on any database. He said the agency is also developing a non-point source repository to store all BMP information.
Secretary Hanger said DEP is supporting the development of new technologies to help address agriculture issues, in particular through projects like the regional methane digester and associated wastewater treatment plant being developed in the Cove area of Blair County. The cost of the digester is $32 million.
Both Secretary Hanger and Secretary Redding pointed to recent experiences in Watson Run, Lancaster County, as a model for dealing with agricultural enforcement and compliance efforts.
Responding to EPA, the agencies and the Lancaster County conservation district worked on a strategy to identify and bring farmers into compliance with state requirements to develop and begin implementing farm-based conservation plans.
Secretary Hanger said Pennsylvania's efforts to reduce runoff pollution are paying off, citing a recent Susquehanna River Basin Commission report showing reductions in nutrient and sediment going into the river from Pennsylvania.
At the committee meeting, Secretary Hanger took strong exception to a Chesapeake Bay Foundation report card issued today on Pennsylvania's progress toward meeting the 2011 milestones saying the report was "riddled with inaccuracies from beginning to end."
The report, using DEP's numbers, said Pennsylvania will have to double and triple its efforts to install agricultural best management practices based on the resources made available over the last seven years, if the Commonwealth is to meet the milestone commitments it set by the end of 2011 to cleanup our rivers and streams.
The report goes on to document the help needed by wastewater plants, decisions DEP needs to make to have a functioning nutrient credit trading system and the need to begin the planning needed to meet the stormwater management requirements of the milestones.
In addition, CBF said, the report "is not an indictment of the Department of Environmental Protection staff, but is a reflection of the current prioritization of resources by the Administration and General Assembly."
He said DEP would be responding to the report, but said again he believes the resources are in place to meet Pennsylvania's 2011 commitments. (see separate story).
A video of the hearing and copies of testimony are available online.
Sen. Mary Jo White (R-Venango) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and Sen. Ray Musto (D-Luzerne) serves as Minority Chair.
Sen. Mike Brubaker (R-Lancaster) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee and Sen. Michael O'Pake (D-Berks) serves as Minority Chair.

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