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Let’s sue Pennsylvania

President's budget has Marylanders concerned about future of Chesapeake Bay. (WJZ)

Remember Cresap’s War? You probably don’t. And don’t be embarrassed about that. But that’s the name given to the conflict that arose between early settlers in Maryland and Pennsylvania over who controlled the western valley along the Susquehanna River in the 1730s. It seems incredible now, but shots were fired, militias were summoned and things got ugly. It was only after the Mason-Dixon line was established several decades later that the matter was regarded as permanently settled.

The latest dispute to arise between the two states probably won’t be as ugly as that, but it’s not looking good at the moment. Efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the so-called “blueprint” plan that Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia have agreed to follow, have run into trouble. To put it simply, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the police officer (or perhaps probation officer) that was supposed to make sure that the three states that are the primary sources of pollution into the nation’s largest estuary were cleaning up their act as promised — is missing in action. And that’s a problem. A big one.

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Pennsylvania isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. That much was made clear weeks ago when the EPA released its “Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plans.” Federal authorities recognize that Pennsylvania has fallen behind Maryland and Virginia in cleanup efforts. Frankly, it’s no surprise given the far greater incentive inherent to the two states that are home to the Chesapeake Bay and the bulk of its tributaries. The Susquehanna River provides most of the freshwater into the bay, however, and it’s a major source of pollution. But to put it simply: Will Pennsylvania get tough on Lancaster County farmers in order to benefit Maryland watermen or marina operators or tourists? That’s the rub.

There was a time when the EPA was committed as a full partner in this enterprise. But under President Donald Trump, the EPA is more lap dog than watchdog. And the administration’s disdain for the Chesapeake Bay program is palpable — it sought a 90 percent cut in its budget for Fiscal 2020. (The House of Representatives recently approved a budget bill restoring that funding.) People like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam can express their displeasure with Pennsylvania all they want, but it’s not likely to sway the folks in Harrisburg. In fact, Governor Hogan sent a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in late May observing a $200 million funding gap from the Keystone state and confiding that he was “deeply troubled.” So far, crickets from our northern neighbors who say their efforts to date are simply under-recognized.

But there is something that can put Pennsylvania on track: A lawsuit.

That’s right. It’s time to take Pennsylvania to court and force the state to do what it’s already agreed to do — make the hard choices necessary to improve water quality in the Susquehanna watershed. That can start with helping farmers pay for the kind of improvements that can make a difference: expanded streamside buffer strips and fencing, planting cover crops, nutrient management plans (that reduce sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff) and no-till planting. Most cost money, but there’s a big payoff — cleaner water, air and land and perhaps even savings in using less chemical fertilizers and pesticides and reducing costly soil erosion.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation raised the possibility of a lawsuit when the Phase 3 plans that are supposed to meet clean water goals by 2025 were announced. Make no mistake, Maryland and Virginia have areas that need to improve, too, but Pennsylvania is in a whole different category; the bay foundation describes it as having fallen “drastically short” of pollution reduction goals. A spokesman told The Sun recently that CBF continues to weigh its legal options and “no decisions have been made yet.” Still, the clock is ticking.

We don’t often root for lawsuits. But the old Pennsylvania tourism pitch line, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania,” doesn’t seem to be working anymore. We don’t need to return to the 289-year-old practice of border skirmishes with muskets and pitchforks, so siccing some attorneys on our recalcitrant neighbors appears to be the only reasonable choice left. We can’t wait for the 2020 election to produce a more sympathetic administration in Washington — or for the Conowingo Dam to be miraculously restored into the sediment trap was in years past. It’s time to file the papers on behalf of our most precious natural resource.

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