There was a brief, but spirited celebration among those who defend the Chesapeake Bay and have worked for years to get Pennsylvania to pay its fair share to reduce pollution flowing from the Commonwealth into the bay.
The Pennsylvania legislature eventually passed a bill that establishes what’s called the Clean Streams Fund, $220 million to help reduce pollution in the state’s waterways.
Much of the money is expected to go toward cleaning up the huge Susquehanna River watershed, a 27,510 square mile area the size of South Carolina that contains 8,185 miles of streams, creeks and, of course, the river. In Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, nearly a third of the state’s waterways are polluted to the point that poor water quality is harming wildlife and makes it unfit for human consumption.
Speaking a week after the legislature passed the measure, State Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican from Lancaster County who serves as vice chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, was exuberant.
“There was a lot of hard work,” he said. “I think it’s a good start. … But we have to realize that this is a real marathon, not a sprint.
The time had come. For years, the state legislature had been reluctant to spend state taxpayer dollars on cleaning up the bay — even though those dollars would go toward cleaning up the thousands of miles of compromised waterways in Pennsylvania. This year, however, the state received a windfall of federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief law approved by Congress in 2021. In total, the The state allocated $700 million of the $6.15 billion it received. of the federal government to environmental initiatives in the 2022-23 state budget.
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Politically, members of the legislature advocating more spending on clean water initiatives said it had been a tough sell. “You know how the state is divided politically,” Martin said. Ironically, the spending’s strongest advocates were the midstate Republicans whose districts would benefit from such spending. The hard sell involved convincing Democrats in the state’s metropolitan areas — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — to send dollars to the central state, a Republican-dominated region. As a rule of thumb, and according to conventional wisdom, Republicans often advocate belt-tightening when it comes to environmental spending and Democrats who favor increased spending and regulation to reduce pollution.
“We focused on the watershed,” Martin said, “but we tried to sell it for all of Pennsylvania.”
The Legislature also passed increased funding for the Growing Greener Program and other stormwater management efforts. It also passed the so-called “Fertilizer Bill”, which regulates the use of fertilizers that help add nitrogen and phosphorus to the watershed.
Overall, the passage of the bills signifies a step change in Pennsylvania’s commitment to clean water and the bay. Conservationists have described it as “historic”.
Much of the money will go towards reducing pollution from agriculture, which would benefit farmers in Lancaster and York counties. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that more than 90 percent of the state’s pollution reductions must come from reforming agricultural practices that prevent soil and nitrogen from flowing into watershed tributaries.
“Pennsylvania farmers have shown they are willing to invest their limited time, land and funds to clean up and protect local rivers and streams,” said Bill Chain, the foundation’s acting director and senior program manager. agricultural program in Pennsylvania. The new funding, he said, “will give them additional financial and technical resources to reduce polluted runoff, increase farm sustainability and get the Commonwealth back on track to meet its clean water commitments. “.
Environmental advocacy group PennFuture described the effort “as a historic victory for clean water.” However, Renee Reber, campaign director for the watershed advocacy group, acknowledged that the investment is “going a long way towards achieving our goals”, but warned that “it doesn’t get the job done”.
“That said,” Reber said, “legislators still recognize that there remains a gap to meet the $324 million per year required to fund our pollution reduction needs, and the need for recurring and sustainable funding. is still there.”
Martin is aware that the need for sustainable funding is paramount. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “it’s going to be an ongoing effort. I hope this is a sign that Pennsylvania is bringing the issue to the fore.