The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has come out with a price tag on the federal funding needed to kick-start Pennsylvania’s flagging water quality improvement efforts—$20 million.
Specifically, an extra $20 million to the five south-central Pennsylvania counties – including Cumberland—that generate the highest agricultural pollution loads.
CBF President Will Baker called for an “immediate investment of $20 million” from the federal government, specifically the US Department of Agriculture, during a press conference call last week.
“If conservation dollars are targeted to these five counties, Pennsylvania can significantly close the pollution reduction gap that it faces,” Baker said.
The CBF’s call to concentrate financial resources is part of Pennsylvania’s ongoing struggle to meet the goals set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, a plan that seeks to drastically cut the amount of waterway contaminants in the six states surrounding the bay.
This includes three contaminants – phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment – that are typically associated with farm runoff, and that can alter the chemistry of the Chesapeake, causing unwanted algae blooms, fish deaths and other environmental issues. The EPA blueprint, designed in 2010, calls for 60 percent of the reduction goal to be reached by 2017, and the rest by 2025.
The plan is not on track, however. Nitrogen levels should be cut by 40.7 million pounds per year by 2017, but current reductions are tracking at only 18.7 million pounds. Of the 22 million pound reduction shortfall, 16.3 million pounds are attributable to PA agriculture, the CBF found.
Pennsylvania’s lack of progress caused the federal government to withhold nearly $3 million in additional funding last year until the state adopted a new structure for farm compliance – the so-called “Chesapeake Reboot.”
The ongoing issue, the CBF said, is not that farmers don’t want to install pollution-reduction measures. Rather, the demand for such measures is higher than can be supported. Local state- and county-sponsored conservation districts lack the funding and manpower to provide the level of service needed.
“Many of us have backlogs of farms who are voluntarily trying to get the work done, but funding is limited,” said Chris Thompson, head of the Lancaster County Conservation District, who has worked closely with the CBF.
According to Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania state director for the CBF, York County has a three-year backlog of assistance requests from farmers. But York is 17th out of Pennsylvania’s counties in aid from outside agencies to get this work done, even though the CBF estimates York is second in the state in the amount of contaminant reduction needed.
“Currently, federal funding is not prioritized in a concentrated fashion,” Campbell said.
The bottom line, the CBF believes, is that the bulk of the capital expenditure needed to get Pennsylvania back on track exists in Cumberland, York, Lancaster, Franklin and Adams. The Susquehanna River provides half of the water volume flowing into the Chesapeake, but the counties surrounding it do not get priority funding.
Such capital expenditure comes in various forms. Farmers may be required, after formulating a state-approved plan, to simply expand the tree line buffer between their fields and any passing streams. More complex measures, for instance, may include constructing new manure pits and processors. All of these are capital projects that will support construction jobs in the area, Campbell said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection estimated earlier this year that a state budget increase of at least $7.3 million per year was necessary to catch up with demand for mitigation efforts.
The CBF’s request for a $20 million federal aid increase was derived from the 2012 federal farm bill, which saw a record $10 million in assistance to Pennsylvania for Chesapeake watershed improvements.
“We looked at the expenditures in the farm bill, specifically in 2012 which was the highest year for funding coming into PA,” said Beth McGee, the CBF’s water quality director.
“We realize you can’t just dump a bunch of money in and expect it to get on the ground in a targeted manner,” McGee said. “We recognize it will take the counties time to ramp up their efforts and put that money into farmers’ projects.”