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Gene Yaw

By State Sens. Gene Yaw (R-23), Scott Martin (R-13), and Dan Laughlin (R-49)

Pennsylvania has been blessed with over 85,000 miles of rivers and streams – the highest density of any state in the continental United States. Just about every Pennsylvanian lives within walking distance of a river, stream or “crick.” – so many that a map of these waters covers the entire state in blue.

Unfortunately, the abundance of water in our state has allowed it to be taken for granted. A reliable supply of clean water has built our towns, grown our industries, and fed our people, but historic practices have left that water in worse shape than we found it.

Almost one-third of Pennsylvania’s surface water does not meet state water quality standards for either fish or human health. On a map, these “impaired” waters are depicted as bright red blemishes in every corner of the state. In reality, these waters scar our landscape and diminish our economy.

We now have multiple generations of Pennsylvanians who see a highly polluted orange stream as natural or believe that rain-swollen creeks are supposed to look like chocolate milk. They’re not. In accepting these polluted waters as normal, Pennsylvania towns and cities pay millions more to treat our drinking water supplies and squander millions of dollars in recreation and economic development opportunities.

Of the known sources of impairment, 70 percent are attributed to either agriculture or abandoned mine drainage (AMD). Both sources are known as “non-point” pollution. They are diffuse across the landscape, often on private land, and are not regulated like an end-of-pipe “point” source such as a wastewater treatment plant.

Without a regulatory permit, and without any ratepayers or user fees to support them, the burden of protecting our local streams and creeks from non-point sources falls on individual farmers and landowners. But the impacts of non-point pollution – and the benefits of its clean-up – are felt by all of us, and we all have a role to play in ensuring the cleanup of Pennsylvania’s impaired waters.

That is why we are proposing a new “Clean Streams Fund” for Pennsylvania, dedicated to the practices and programs that will address non-point sources and invest in the future of our farms and communities.

How will Pennsylvania Pay for this?The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (aka Federal COVID Stimulus) has provided almost $7 billion to Pennsylvania for several dedicated uses, one of which is water infrastructure. We propose $250 million, a mere fraction of a percent of Pennsylvania’s allocation, go toward establishing a new Clean Streams Fund.

Non-point sources are best addressed through “best management practices” (BMPs). These BMPs are relatively low-tech and low-cost compared to engineered water treatment plants, yet they yield substantial improvements to water quality.

Some examples of agricultural BMPs are grassed or forested stream buffers, cover crops, no-till farming (planting into the residue of the last crop rather than plowing), fencing livestock out of streams except for managed crossings, barnyard improvements, and manure storage.

For mitigating AMD, the most effective BMPs involve creating a series of treatment pools that allow sediments and minerals to settle out of the water, buffered by limestone and vegetation, before re-emerging into a free-flowing stream.

Although these practices are critically needed to restore Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers, the cost for this work far exceeds current funding. For example, the cost to mitigate AMD statewide is $1 billion. The cost to eliminate nonpoint pollution from agriculture is $1.25 billion in just the Susquehanna watershed, an area representing only half of the full state.

A High Return on Investment

Despite the costs, local economic benefits of these practices are far greater.

Non-point BMPs require materials, equipment and labor that are sourced locally. For every dollar invested, $1.60 is returned to the community. For every mile of stream improved, over $100,000 will be generated in the local economy from improved fishing and boating opportunities. Every ten percent increase in tree cover reduces water treatment costs by 20 percent.

Furthermore, new mapping and data technology is now available to identify the most strategic places and practices for action, so that we will see real improvement in our local waters in the shortest amount of time.

A Clean Streams Fund should be permanently created by law. The stimulus money must be spent by 2024, and the initial infusion of $250 million can be used to accelerate and expand the work needed to restore Pennsylvania’s clean water, but a long-term funding source will need to be identified to sustain our efforts after the stimulus money runs out. A long-term investment will reap long-term economic and water quality rewards.

The pandemic has underscored the vital importance of a local food supply, abundant natural resources and accessible outdoor recreation. By using a small part of federal relief funds to shore up the health of these vital industries and grow the economy as a whole, future generations of Pennsylvanians might only know streams that run clean and can be safely enjoyed by everyone.