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The costs to clean a river

Advocates say a cleaner Susquehanna means a healthier Chesapeake Bay

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By Donna Morelli

Chesapeake Bay Journal

Pennsylvania advocates for the Bay and clean water are hoping for new dedicated funding to clean up the Susquehanna River in the midst of another tough budget year in Harrisburg, where environmental programs are being cut again.

Legislation has been introduced to renew Pennsylvania’s popular Growing Greener program [Senate Bill 795 (Killion-R-Delaware)], which over nearly two decades has poured roughly $1.3 billion into protecting water resources and preserving open space and farmland.

But the Growing Greener program is running short of money, and lawmakers have yet to figure out how to pay for a new round of projects.

Nor are they any closer to finding the increased funds needed to deal with Pennsylvania’s polluted streams and rivers, its lax oversight of drinking water safety or its federally mandated obligation to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

In late May, Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, introduced Senate Bill 705, which is similar to last year’s unsuccessful Growing Greener legislation. A House bill is expected to be introduced later this month.

As introduced, the bill would establish what supporters call “a framework” for a new Growing Greener III program. It would expand the number of state agencies eligible to receive funding, and authorize spending on efforts to conserve forests and improve water quality.

The Growing Greener Coalition, an alliance of conservation, recreation and preservation groups, has identified $315 million a year in needed spending on projects supporting clean water, locally grown food, parks, trails and outdoor recreation.

Under the draft legislation, up to 40 percent would have to be spent in the Susquehanna basin, the largest source of fresh water – and pollution – to the Bay. Advocates hope that will address at least some of Pennsylvania’s shortcomings in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution reaching the Chesapeake.

Killion’s Growing Greener bill enjoys bipartisan support from a majority of the state Senate. However, it fails to identify a source of funding for the new projects.

And existing funding for Growing Greener has decreased 75 percent over the last decade, from about $200 million a year in the mid-2000s to $57 million this year. The legislation doesn’t address how to reverse that.

Andrew Heath, the Growing Greener Coalition’s executive director, said supporters want to build public and legislative support for continuing the program first and then try to corral funding for it later.

“Instead of having any opposition right now, we want to set the framework for the funding,” Heath said. “Whatever revenue the state uses to balance the budget---whatever that catalyst is-- we want to be part of that.”

Budget discussions have little time to progress before the June 30 deadline, and the Growing Greener legislation has just been introduced. “Nobody is talking about it significantly, and it is May; our objective now is the budget,” said Jeffrey Cluckey, budget and environmental analyst for the House Appropriations Committee.

Begun in 1999, Growing Greener has developed hundreds of local parks and trails, conserved more than 80,000 acres of open space, and restored hundreds of miles of streams and waterways. It’s also preserved more than 78,000 acres of farmland, cleaned up abandoned mine land and funded more than 100 water and sewage system upgrades. When first established, lawmakers committed $645 million to it for five years. Then in 2002, the legislature voted to give it a permanent source of revenue, from a tipping fee imposed on garbage haulers.

In 2005, Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly approved a $625 million bond issue to continue the program, dubbed Growing Greener II, for another six years with borrowed money.

Now, the Growing Greener II proceeds have been spent or committed, and roughly half the tipping fee revenue is going to pay down the debt.

Growing Greener is the closest thing Pennsylvania has to funds in Maryland and Virginia dedicated to water quality projects and Bay restoration.

Those two states are on track to meet their 2025 cleanup goals under the Bay “pollution diet” imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, while Pennsylvania is far short of doing what’s needed to reduce nitrogen and sediment reaching the Chesapeake, according to EPA.

Cost estimates of what Pennsylvania would need to invest annually to get on track range from as low as $241 million in a 2013 Penn State study to $674 million in a University of Maryland report last year. The state is now spending about $140 million annually.

The Pennsylvania delegation of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission is calling on the state to create a water fund, which would be used to restore local water quality as well as meet the state’s obligations to the Bay restoration effort – something the EPA has demanded in letters to the state.

Pennsylvania has 19,000 miles of impaired rivers and streams, the most of any state in the nation.

Morelli covers local government issues and Bay-related topics in Pennsylvania and New York. She is also an assistant to the executive director and previously served as the Pennsylvania director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Earlier in her career, she worked as a writer for two daily papers and for special projects at the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and Central Pennsylvania Conservancy. Morelli holds degrees in Environmental Studies and English from Binghamton University. She resides and works in Carlisle, PA, with two big dogs and a pony.