Saving the Susquehanna: What happens after Pennsylvania misses interim pollution goals?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It runs through all of our lives; many of us take it for granted.

But environmental groups say we need to care more about the Susquehanna River, the source for half of the fresh water that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

There’s been progress in cleaning up the nearly 450 miles of river in recent years, but it’s still an uphill battle to meet fast-approaching goals laid out by state and federal agencies.

On his dairy farm near Shippensburg, Zane Garber spent a recent morning moving newborn calves, “less than three hours old,” he said, to their temporary pens.

Garber has a big bovine staff. “Total cows is 360,” he said. “That includes the dry cows.”

That means a lot of — to put it delicately — waste, which if not stored and managed properly can pollute creeks and streams and eventually the Susquehanna through runoff.

“We’re not out to harm anybody,” Garber said. He follows the moving target of regulations; he’d like to do even more, like build a bigger manure storage area.

“With our prices of milk in the last year and a half, two years, doesn’t really allow me to have a lot of extra cash flow to just call a contractor and say come and put me a bigger storage facility in,” he said.

That’s why on this particular morning, Garber was joined by two guys from the Cumberland County Conservation District. They stopped by to double-check Garber’s records.

“First, we’re going to look at your manure management plans,” Brad Seeley, the district’s Chesapeake Bay technician, explained to Garber. “To the best of your knowledge, is your manure management plan being implemented?”

This district is one of several in the area that recently committed to making house calls.

“Short answer, 50 inspections per year,” Seeley said, “but like I said, we won’t stop there.”

“We have a good rapport, we feel, with the farmers,” the conservation district’s nutrient management specialist, said, “and we want to continue working with them.”

It’s part of efforts by environmental groups to crack down on pollution in the river and the bay. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency withheld close to $3 million in federal funds until the state “rebooted” its plan to help clean up the water.

It all comes back to the state’s Clean Water Blueprint. Six years ago, states that feed into the bay developed plans to cut nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment levels under EPA guidelines.

The agency set two goals: 100 percent of reductions by 2025, with 60 percent completed by next year.

“Unfortunately, Pennsylvania will miss the mark,” Harry Campbell, executive director of the state’s Chesapeake Bay Foundation office said.

And it’s not a small miss. This summer, the EPA found the overall bay nitrogen reduction goals for all states combined were behind the 2017 goal by 54 percent — not even half way to where the agency wants the levels.

“Pennsylvania represents roughly 86 percent of that shortfall,” Campbell said.

Most of the 22 million pounds of nitrogen that the EPA says shouldn’t be in the water by next year comes from the Keystone State, and most of that — 86 percent as well — falls on the 35,000 farms in Pennsylvania’s portion of the bay watershed.

Like Garber explained, though, it’s not necessarily for lack of trying. “Sometimes financially it doesn’t allow us to do that.”

“Frankly, we’ve never had the leadership, commitment, and investment necessary to get the job done, at all levels of government,” Campbell said.

While the Wolf administration recently announced $28 million in state and federal funds to help farmers with cleanup efforts, acting secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection Patrick McDonnell said it goes beyond money in the bank.

“If I have a frustration coming in, frankly,” he said, “I think it’s we’ve scatter-shotted a lot of resources across the bay. So now’s the time to get really focused on where do we have the impairments, where can we be most effective, and where can we not just help the bay, but help Pennsylvanians derive value from our water resources?”

McDonnell said it’s getting better; wastewater treatment plants, for instance, have hit or exceeded their pollution reduction goals.

But other common polluters, like storm water runoff and agriculture, remain a thorn in the side of groups working to curb harmful runoff. The question now, to the state and to environmentalists is will conditions improve enough to hit the 2025 goals?

“It’s definitely a concern. That said, I think we have a focus right now on these issues like we’ve never had.”

“It is a very tenuous improvement,” Campbell said, “and so what we need to do is take those lessons learned and continue to apply them and reinvest.”

Just as important, though, is local communities taking ownership of those best practices, like the inexpensive option of planting trees around creeks and streams.

That’s where conservation districts come back in.

Garber didn’t have any violations; his farm is up to standards. But when an inspection does turn up a problem, districts try to work with farmers to provide technical and, when they can, financial help to fix it.

“We’re not out to get any farmer,” McIntire said.

“We all have the same goal. We’re all in this together,” Seeley said. “We want to protect our water; we want to protect our land.”

Garber does too, but without a greater financial commitment, farmers like him can’t necessarily commit to any new regulations.

For now, he does what he can.

“We’re all living in this world,” he said, “and that’s my goal.”

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