By Timothy B. Wheeler, Chesapeake Bay Journal
Fracking, renewable energy, sewage overflows, pollution trading, oysters, cownose rays. These contentious topics, and more — some with implications for the health of the Chesapeake Bay — awaited legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia as they returned to work in January.
Each state has a slightly different menu of environmental legislation to consider. But funding — or the lack thereof — for Bay restoration efforts looms as a common hurdle for lawmakers in Annapolis, Harrisburg and Richmond.
The three key Bay watershed states face revenue shortfalls ranging from $400 million to $1.7 billion each, and spending cuts appear likely in the near term to close those gaps.
Environmental activists worry that if Bay-related programs and projects are not spared, the restoration effort could lose steam at a critical juncture.
The “pollution diet” imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is due for reassessment this year, and when the new president, takes office in January, he may be less inclined than his predecessor to play an assertive federal role in pressing the states to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake.
As a result, the Bay cleanup may be more dependent than ever on what the states do. But with one possible exception, they seem headed toward yet another round of belt-tightening.
Pennsylvania faces a $600 million budget shortfall it must deal with in the current budget year, and a projected revenue deficit of $1.7 billion as it plans for the next year. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he intends to take care of those yawning fiscal gaps through spending cuts and efficiency moves.
After trying without success in his first two years to get the GOP-dominated legislature to approve income or sales tax increases to close chronic deficits, the Democratic governor has sworn off a third attempt — though he still wants a tax on the Marcellus Shale gas industry.
In mid-December, Wolf made his first round of cuts worth $100 million, eliminating thousands of vacant state government jobs — including more than 400 positions in the departments of Environmental Protection, and Conservation and Natural Resources.
The DEP [General Fund] budget is 40 percent smaller now than it was 14 years ago, according to David Hess, who was then the DEP secretary and is now a political consultant in Harrisburg.
But there’s hope in some quarters that Pennsylvania lawmakers may be finally moving to break from years of cost-cutting that have contributed to the state lagging badly in doing its share to restore the Bay.
Some Republicans in the legislature who generally oppose broad-based tax increases say they see support growing on both sides of the aisle for levying a new water consumption fee.
The fee legislation would provide a dedicated funding source for environmental and conservation efforts. In introducing fee legislation last year, sponsors said Pennsylvania needed to step up its Bay cleanup efforts or face potential consequences from the EPA.
But they also stressed that the funds raised by the fee could help clean up more than 26,000 miles of degraded rivers and streams in the state.
“In fact, about a quarter of Pennsylvania’s streams are impaired,” noted Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “That makes Pennsylvania number one in the nation for impaired waterways,” she added.
State Sen. Richard L. Alloway II [R-Franklin] (Photo), a member of Pennsylvania’s delegation on the Bay Commission, predicted that finding funding would be a top priority of lawmakers this year.
“I think there are many legislators who take the water quality issue very seriously, and we need to start talking about real solutions to these problems,” said Sen. Alloway, a Republican whose district covers a swath of southcentral Pennsylvania.
Sen. Alloway introduced a water use fee bill at the end of last year’s legislative session. His co-sponsor was the Senate majority leader, Sen. Jake Corman, whose central Pennsylvania district is also in the Bay watershed.
Sen. Alloway said he expects Corman to join him in introducing the bill again this year.
There’s broad recognition of the need for more to be done. Late last session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill to launch a third generation of the state’s Growing Greener program by investing $315 million annually in clean water, parks and trails, open space, and locally grown food.
But the Growing Greener legislation failed to identify a source of funding for the new projects. Alloway, who was a co-sponsor of the bill, said that without funds, its ambitious agenda stands little chance of success.
“Everyone has ideas on how to spend the money, but we don’t have the money yet,” he said. The water consumption fee, as proposed last year, would raise $245 million a year, based on the withdrawal rates of the large commercial and industrial users who would be charged.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Sen. Alloway acknowledged, to shepherd a dedicated water fee measure through the legislature amid the state’s fiscal woes. But, he added that he believed there was sufficient support to pass it if agreement could be hammered out on how to raise and spend the funds.
Other PA Bay-Related Issues
-- Lawn Fertilizer: Pennsylvania may finally join Maryland and Virginia in restricting the content and application of lawn fertilizer. State Sen. Richard L. Alloway II, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation in the last session, said he’s gotten support from key committee chairmen and has won over opponents from the farming community, who worried that the measure somehow might affect their crop fertilization.
The bill would mirror laws adopted by the Bay watershed’s other two major states in restricting the nitrogen and phosphorus content of lawn food sold in retail stores, and in barring homeowner applications from Nov. 16 to the end of February.
-- Regulatory Rollback: Environmental advocates say they’re bracing for bills aimed at relaxing or rolling back state laws and regulations. Rep. James R. Santora (R-Delaware County) is expected to re-introduce a bill he sponsored last session to grant developers more leeway from current stream buffer requirements.
-- State Amphibian: Pennsylvania college students are working to officially name the Eastern hellbender, a large, increasingly rare salamander that is an indicator of clean stream health, as the state’s official amphibian.
“The hellbender is Pennsylvania’s largest amphibian,” noted Harry Campbell, state director of the Pennsylvania Office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “They’re dwindling, but they’re found in our most pristine waters, and they’re particularly sensitive to sediment pollution.”
The complete article, including information on other Chesapeake Bay states, is available online.
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