Targeting polluted streams, a proposed program could set up a framework to provide needed money to farms in Lancaster County and across the state, where pressure is high to make environmental improvements.
That was the message shared by Republican state Sen. Gene Yaw of Lycoming County, who spoke Monday in York County to promote his Senate Bill 465, which has support among farmers and conservation stewards.
But even with that support, Yaw acknowledged there is an obstacle. Specifically, no dedicated funding source yet exists to get the proposed program off the ground.
“Funding is an issue,” Yaw said, speaking Monday at the Flinchbaugh’s Orchard & Farm in Hellam.
There, he discussed his proposed bill, which would establish an Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program — designed to offer financial and technical support toward efforts to keep pollution from local farmside streams.
Those improvements are necessary across Pennsylvania, where officials are working to meet federal mandates to reduce pollution — nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment — flowing largely from farms into local waterways.
Currently, those pollutants flow downstream into the Susquehanna River and, eventually, to the Chesapeake bay, where they can cause damage, fostering algae blooms that deplete oxygen from its waters.
Costly investments needed
It’s a problem federal regulators want to end, and Pennsylvania Farm Bureau president Rick Ebert said local farmers want to help by implementing pollution-capturing upgrades on their land. But that’s not always easy, he said at the Monday conference, speaking in favor of the proposed bill.
“Many of the investments needed are too costly for farms to afford on our own, especially in a difficult farm economy,” Ebert said.
That’s where Senate Bill 465 comes in, according to Yaw, chair of the Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee. The bill would set up a state-level program to funnel money to individual counties, where improvements are needed.
And areas in greatest need would receive more assistance, according to the bill, which factors in criteria like the number of farms in a county, cropland acreage, livestock population and miles of impaired streams.
Impaired local streams
That’s likely good news locally, where agricultural land is plentiful and about half of the total 1,499 stream miles are considered impaired, said Christopher Thompson, manager of the Lancaster County conservation district.
In fact, Lancaster County officials are on the hook to reduce millions of pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by 2025 — a goal they are struggling to meet.
Through Yaw’s bill, the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program would send money directly to county conservation districts, where officials would then pick priority projects, using local expertise to further distribute funding.
Thompson said it would complement work already ongoing in the county, overseen by district officials and their partners.
“If this is one more program to add to that suite, it’s only going to help us,” Thompson said.
But that’s only if it comes with enough funding to make additional hires, both administrative and technical staff, he said, pointing out that the Lancaster County Conservation District employees are already busy fulfilling daily duties.
According to the proposed bill, a portion of the funds allocated to conservation districts can be used to cover program administration.
Helping farmers succeed
Thompson said he also was disappointed that a dedicated funding source hasn’t been identified for the prospective program.
That’s especially true because Pennsylvania’s efforts to clean local waterways have long been stymied by a lack of available dollars. It’s a fact that’s often highlighted by critical conservationists, including those at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who attended the Monday conference.
“We all want agriculture to succeed, and farmers can succeed with the right amount of resources and technical assistance to finish the job,” reads a statement from Shannon Gority, executive director of the foundation’s Pennsylvania office.
Multimillion dollar shortfall
In January, a local official put Lancaster County’s deficit into perspective, explaining it would take about $72 million annually to meet local water quality goals, but at that time, the money available added up to less than a third of that amount.
Yaw previously proposed that a portion of the state’s allocation of American Rescue Plan funding be made available to cover waterway cleanups. Specifically, he asked for $250 million to establish a Clean Streams Fund.
On Monday, Yaw said there is no clear indication about whether that money will be made available, but stressed that the program set up by Senate Bill 465 is not dependent on that funding.
The bill allows a number of sources, both public and private, to make money available to the program. Providing a framework through the proposed program could help to draw willing funders, Yaw said.
The bill also has local support among its cosponsors — Sens. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, and Scott Martin, R-Martic Township.
Ahead of Monday’s event, Aument provided a statement.
“It is imperative that we develop creative policy solutions that will allow us to protect Pennsylvania streams and waterways without placing significant burdens on our already struggling agriculture industry,” he said. “With the Agriculture Conservation Assistance Program, supporting our farmers and ensuring clean waterways for generations to come would not be mutually exclusive goals.”
Similarly, a spokesman for Martin said the senator is “hopeful that the Clean Stream Fund is created.” Martin partnered with Yaw in calling for the fund to be established.
The bill is currently in the state Senate’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.