Friday, January 14, 2022

Bay Journal: PA Contends Its New Cleanup Plan Will Meet Chesapeake Bay Goals

By Karl Blankenship,
Chesapeake Bay Journal

Pennsylvania, long criticized for its lack of Chesapeake Bay cleanup progress, submitted an updated strategy to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Dec. 31 that state officials say will meet its 2025 pollution reduction goals.

At issue is how to ramp up efforts in Pennsylvania, which sends the most water-fouling nutrients to the Chesapeake of any state in the Bay watershed. The EPA said it will decide by the end of February whether the plan is realistic.

Adam Ortiz, administrator of the agency’s mid-Atlantic region, said that if the EPA does not find the state’s watershed implementation plan convincing, the agency could take a variety of actions to force the state to do more — some of which could have costly ramifications.

“We have regulatory powers,” Ortiz said. “We will not hesitate to use those backstop measures if the amended WIP is insufficient.”

During a farm visit to discuss Pennsylvania’s new plan, Karl Brown, executive secretary of the State Conservation Commission, acknowledged “there’s no question that Pennsylvania, and particularly the ag sector, has to accelerate our efforts.”

But, he said, the state now has “unprecedented momentum” toward meeting its Bay goals. 

He noted that Pennsylvania had the largest nutrient reduction of any state in the watershed in 2020, the year for which the most recent data is available, and it has recently steered more money toward Bay efforts.

Under a 2010 cleanup plan, the EPA assigned all six states in the Chesapeake watershed, along with the District of Columbia, specific goals for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus, the two nutrients largely responsible for the Bay’s poor water quality and oxygen-starved “dead zones.” 

The states are to have all necessary practices in place by 2025 to meet those goals.

Pennsylvania was tasked with reducing the amount of nitrogen it sends to the Bay each year by 39.7 million pounds a year — the majority of the 71.5-million-pound reduction sought from the entire watershed.

But the state’s progress, as measured by computer models, immediately fell behind. Through 2020, its annual nitrogen load was reduced by just 7.2 million pounds. 

The EPA has expressed concern about the state’s lack of progress over the years but has done little to address the shortfall beyond redirecting and temporarily withholding some Bay-related grant money.

PA’s $324 Million Annual Shortfall In Funding

The issue reached a boiling point when the state submitted an updated cleanup plan in 2019 that fell 9.8 million pounds short of meeting its 2025 nitrogen goals and identified an annual $324 million funding shortfall. 

Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, along with the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others filed suit against the EPA for failing to press the state to make greater progress. That suit is still pending.

Now, Pennsylvania officials say their amended plan will fully meet its Bay obligations. 

It includes steps to secure greater nutrient reductions, but it closes much of the gap by contending that the state-federal Bay Program has undercounted nitrogen reductions from the state by 8.6 million pounds. 

Mainly, those are agricultural practices installed years ago that the Bay Program says have exceeded their expected lifespan and are no longer effective.

“Thousands of functioning best management practices in Pennsylvania, many of them having been federally cost-shared with taxpayer dollars, are now considered expired,” said Jill Whitcomb, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bay office. But, she said, data collected by Pennsylvania and other states shows that many of those “continue to function far beyond their credit duration.”

Significant Nutrient Improvements

Monitoring data from the U.S. Geological Survey does show significant nutrient improvements in the Susquehanna River, which drains most of Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed. 

Nutrient trends are also improving in Conestoga Creek, which flows through Lancaster County — the most agriculture-intensive county in the Bay watershed.

Still, even if those efforts are counted, the state would need to fund and implement runoff control measures on farmland at an unprecedented rate.

According to the Bay Program’s models, all watershed states — including those suing the EPA over Pennsylvania — have struggled to make significant headway in controlling runoff from farms, where nutrients from manure and fertilizer are the largest source of pollution to the Bay.

Most cleanup progress has come by upgrading wastewater treatment plants. With most of those upgrades completed, all states must now ramp up runoff control practices on farms, such as planting stream buffers and nutrient-absorbing cover crops, at rates none have achieved to date.

But Pennsylvania’s task is staggering because of the amount of farmland and number of farms in its portion of the Bay watershed. 

Its agricultural acreage is larger than that of the rest of the states combined, and it’s home to 30,000 farms, mostly small, creating huge outreach challenges.

Ortiz acknowledged that other states have shortcomings, but he said that Pennsylvania, without dedicated funding to help farmers implement on-the-ground conservation practices, lags behind most other states.

“I’m not diminishing shortcomings elsewhere in the region,” Ortiz said. “But the most bleeding is coming from this geographic region and that sector, so we’ve got to address that bleeding right away.”

Ortiz noted that the EPA has increased its technical and financial support, pouring millions of additional dollars into the state. And it is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to further increase federal support. 

In addition, he said, the EPA is working to ensure that efforts are better targeted to locations and projects that will deliver the best results.

“The federal government is putting our money where our mouth is, and we’re going to do it in a very targeted way,” Ortiz said.

But he said the state also has to step up. In a Dec. 23 letter to Pennsylvania officials, Ortiz said many state programs were “insufficient or lacking” and that Pennsylvania needs to do more to keep livestock out of streams, improve manure management and require stream buffers.  [Read more here.]

General Assembly Failed To Provide Funding

While the General Assembly has failed to provide significant funding for Bay efforts, Ortiz noted that the state could tap federal funding from COVID-19 relief legislation and the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.

In the letter, Ortiz outlined backstop actions the EPA could take if the state’s revised plan doesn’t meet expectations. 

It could, for example, extend regulatory oversight over smaller farm operations, require greater nutrient reductions from wastewater plants, object to new wastewater discharge permits that could impact Bay water quality and exert more authority over how Bay-related grant money is used.

“Our job is to work with our partners to get outcomes for nutrient reductions,” Ortiz said. “The backstops are one tool to do it. Is it maximally effective? No. But will it help? Yes. Will it increase the pressure for leaders in Harrisburg to step up with the policies and the funding that they need? I believe that it will.”

[For more information on Pennsylvania’s Plan, visit DEP’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed webpage.

[DEP’s Water Resources Advisory Committee will hear a briefing on the 2022 Water Quality Report at its January 20 meeting. Read more here.]

(Reprinted from the Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

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-- DEP Announces How Pennsylvania Will Meet Its 2025 Pollution Reduction Goals in Chesapeake Bay Watershed; All Counties On Board

-- EPA Points To Lack Of Dedicated Farm Cost Share Program As Major Gap In PA's Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan

-- Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Pennsylvania Far Behind Where It Needs To Be In Meeting 2025 Chesapeake Bay Milestones

[Posted: January 14, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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