Ongoing efforts to reduce pollution flowing to the Chesapeake Bay have seen some success, but to bring the water body back to health, much more conservation work is needed.
That’s especially true on Pennsylvania farmland, including in Lancaster County.
All of that is according to a report released Tuesday by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which noted some improvement in pollution levels but gave the bay a low grade of D-plus — the same grade it got in a previous report issued two years ago.
But Don Ranck, the Lancaster County Farm Bureau’s president, said pollution reduction goals for the bay are unrealistic.
“Yes, farmers want to help. Farmers want to do what's right,” Ranck said. “But we have a goal that is impossible to reach. They set the goal higher than can possibly be reached.”
Ranck shared his opinion in the hours after the foundation released its 2020 State of the Bay report, which assesses the Chesapeake’s health by looking at related pollution, wildlife habitat and fisheries.
In the report, foundation officials mentioned nitrogen and phosphorus — nutrients that make their way into the bay, where they can contribute to an oxygen-poor dead zone, which chokes out wildlife.
To combat those effects, regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have mandated that nutrient pollution loads be reduced in each of the six states, including Pennsylvania, that makeup the bay watershed. Pollution reduction plans were created in those states and goals have been set with a 2025 deadline.
In many cases, those goals are met by implementing projects designed to capture stormwater runoff, which can wash over surfaces, both urban streets and farmland, collecting pollutants. Runoff can then carry those pollutants into streams, which, in Lancaster County, flow into the Susquehanna River that empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
“In 2020, we saw signs these pollution reduction efforts are working: less nitrogen and phosphorus, a smaller dead zone, and improving water clarity,” the report reads.
That’s also good news for local waterways, which likely benefited from pollution reduction, too, said Allyson Ladley Gibson, coordinator for Lancaster Clean Water Partners, a countywide group of organizations working on local water quality issues.
“We think this news bodes well for local waterways and the Susquehanna River,” she said. “News like this is a huge driver to continue and expand the necessary, collaborative clean water work throughout the county.”
But that success can’t be celebrated equally throughout the watershed, according to the report.
“To meet ... goals and ensure long-term water-quality improvements, efforts to reduce pollution from agriculture and urban and suburban runoff must accelerate — especially in Pennsylvania, which remains far off track, largely due to a lack of resources to help farmers implement conservation practices,” the report reads.
Seeking more funding
However, foundation President William Baker spoke Tuesday to dispel any notions that farmers are wholly to blame.
“We feel that the farmers in Pennsylvania are the victims because, repeatedly, they have shown the willingness to put practices in place,” Baker said during a Tuesday web conference.
Instead, he and others speaking on behalf of the foundation criticized state and federal officials for not making more funding available to farmers to cover the costs of related work. That was in addition to decrying the Trump-era loosening of federal environmental protection laws.
In September, foundation officials estimated that Pennsylvania’s pollution reduction plan was underfunded by more than $300 million dollars a year.
Similar problems exist in Lancaster County, according to Gibson, of Lancaster Clean Water Partners.
“County efforts to clean up its streams remain woefully underfunded,” she said. “Lancaster needs approximately $72 million annually to adequately reach the county’s water quality goals and current funding is less than one third that amount."
It’s a gap local stakeholders, including farmers, are unable to fill, Gibson said.
“Farmers recognize they play a crucial role in achieving healthy streams in Lancaster County, and they’re eager to fulfill that role,” she said. “But no farmer can be expected to pay for those … installments alone.”
Efforts have been ongoing to lobby lawmakers for additional funding, according to Liam Migdail, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
However, he pointed to the ongoing pandemic, and its negative impact on the economy, including government budgets. Additional dollars available for conservation likely are few, he said.
Likewise, many farmers have seen financial losses due to COVID-19, others even before the virus, Migdail said.
Even though “farmers are prioritizing this type of conservation,” personally covering some of these cost might not be possible “if you’re a small dairy farm that’s been losing money for the past six years,” he said
“There is some expensive stuff here,” Migdail said.
The statewide funding shortfall was among the grievances listed in September by foundation officials, who then announced they'd be filing a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA, in part, for not holding Pennsylvania accountable to meeting its 2025 goals.
A state plan aims to meet only 73% of its nitrogen reduction goal, according to the announcement.
Similarly, a Lancaster County plan aims only to meet 80% of its 11.46 million pounds of its nitrogen reduction mandate. Gibson, with Lancaster Clean Water Partners, elaborated in a Tuesday afternoon email.
“Lancaster County is responsible for the largest percentage of nitrogen reductions (21%) from PA’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” she said, explaining after extensive planning, an 80% reduction seems like the best that can be achieved.
“Simply put, we don’t readily see where else we would go to get more improvements on our farms or in our urban/suburban areas within the timeline. It is not solely an issue with funding,” she said.