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Will Pennsylvania save the Chesapeake Bay? | COMMENTARY

Sunrise lights up the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Many farmers in Lancaster County have adopted a variety of best management practices to curb agricultural nutrients and sediment from running into Susquehanna and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
Sunrise lights up the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Many farmers in Lancaster County have adopted a variety of best management practices to curb agricultural nutrients and sediment from running into Susquehanna and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

We are at an inflection point for Pennsylvania’s efforts to save the Chesapeake Bay.

What policymakers in the Keystone State do — or more importantly, what they do not do — over the next five years will determine not only the fate of many of the commonwealth’s rivers and streams in the Susquehanna and Potomac River Basins, but also the fate of America’s largest estuary and the third largest in the world.

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All of us benefit from access to clean water, and it’s our shared responsibility to ensure clean water exists now and for future generations. Despite that, as The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board stated last month, Pennsylvania officials have “allowed all manner of pollution in the Susquehanna River, but don’t have to deal with the consequences as it all flows south into Maryland and Virginia.”

Put simply, Pennsylvania is lagging in its obligations as spelled out in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, and policymakers must act with urgency if they are to right the ship.

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That’s why PennFuture — a statewide environmental advocacy organization with five offices across Pennsylvania — has released a report designed to get our state lawmakers back on track toward funding clean water obligations.

Titled “Underfunded and Polluted: Solutions to Fund Clean Water in Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” our report puts forth a legislative agenda that, if acted upon, would provide the technical assistance, agency support and public investments needed to put Pennsylvania on the path toward meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or the so-called “pollution diet” goals, by its 2025 end date.

We don’t just offer policy solutions. This report also identifies funding mechanisms that can be deployed by Pennsylvania legislators to help us achieve these clean water goals, including a severance tax on natural gas extraction, eliminating the sales tax exemption for bottled water, levying a fee on single-use plastic bags and establishing a water use fee for large commercial operations in Pennsylvania, among others.

A science-based plan, also known as the Watershed Implementation Plan, is in place to guide Pennsylvania’s efforts, and we know the path forward through this report. There can no longer be excuses for inaction from a state that provides half of all freshwater that flows into the bay.

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The pathways spelled out in our report complement efforts already underway in the state Capitol, as two bills with bipartisan support could soon come up for a vote in Harrisburg.

The first is Senate Bill 251, which seeks to implement new standards and regulations on fertilizer application across Pennsylvania, while Senate Bill 465 would create a conservation assistance program to help more farmers and landowners implement practices to combat nonpoint source agricultural runoff to our streams, creeks and rivers. We will be watching these bills closely and doing our part to support them.

We will also be looking to the new federal administration that has shown a proclivity to act on and take serious issues of environmental protection. Though Pennsylvania has an outsized burden to address bay pollution, help can — and should — come from the Biden administration and Congress.

In the same March editorial, The Sun wrote that “rarely has there been an environmental project so ripe for federal involvement,” and we agree. Even now, advocates are looking to this new administration for new investments in water infrastructure, including clean water boosters like green stormwater infrastructure, riparian buffer planting and more.

Even with any potential influxes of federal dollars and attention, the buck stops with Pennsylvania. Our leaders have lent support to plans for years to achieve clean water, but haven’t found the mechanisms to fully implement them. The hope is that our report will be the missing link to bridge that gap toward clean water.

Now is a critical time for Pennsylvania lawmakers to show they care about clean water and public health. Now is the time to show we care about our farmers and towns, and anyone who enjoys clean water for recreational or economic reasons.

Now is the time for Pennsylvania to show that it’s serious about saving the Chesapeake Bay. There is no more time to waste.

Jacquelyn Bonomo (jbonomo@pennfuture.org) is president and CEO of PennFuture, a Pennsylvania-based environmental advocacy organization.

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