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HARRISBURG, PA — The Pennsylvania Departments of Environmental Protection (DEP), Agriculture, and Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) announced that state and local partners made record progress in 2020 on the Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan (Phase 3 WIP) to improve the health of Pennsylvania’s share of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
“In a year of significant challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, when any partnership with as many moving parts as the Phase 3 WIP could’ve fallen apart, we achieved a record level of progress,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “We ended the second year of Phase 3 WIP implementation with every county now signed on to help and people reaching out to get involved, as well as notable progress by the wastewater, farming, and other sectors.”
Nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution and sediment build up in streams, rivers, and lakes as a result of human activity, such as using too much fertilizer, plowing and tilling agricultural fields, and stripping away trees and vegetation, increasing streambank erosion.
The Phase 3 WIP is the state-coordinated initiative to reduce these pollutants and improve water quality to benefit Pennsylvania’s local communities, economy, and quality of life, while meeting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements for the bay. All six states in the watershed and the District of Columbia began working in 2010 to meet these federal targets. The Phase 3 WIP follows two earlier plans. Year-end reports for 2020 demonstrate that Pennsylvania attained a number of milestones.
While EPA is still reviewing 2019-2020 numeric data, its initial assessment credits Pennsylvania with its third-largest annual nitrogen reduction in 2019-2020. Wastewater treatment plants contributed 73 percent, their largest annual nitrogen reduction in 35 years. This was due primarily to more accurate reporting of actual versus estimated pollutant levels.
EPA credits Pennsylvania with its sixth-largest annual phosphorus reduction in 2019-2020. Wastewater treatment plants contributed 61 percent, their second-largest annual phosphorus reduction in 35 years.
Farmers contributed 25 percent of the nitrogen reduction and 32 percent of the phosphorus reduction, which is their largest annual phosphorus reduction since 2010. Better accounting of implementation of nutrient and sediment reducing practices, such as the state-required agricultural erosion and sediment control and nutrient and manure management plans, was one contributing factor.
Increasingly efficient application of fertilizers was another contributing factor. EPA research shows that of all states in the watershed, Pennsylvania has had the largest historical decline in “agricultural surplus,” or excess nitrogen and phosphorus that isn’t absorbed by crops.
“Despite the challenges of 2020 to the agriculture industry, farmers stepped up to meet their commitments to reducing nutrient and sediment loads to the bay by developing and implementing conservation plans, using fertilizers more efficiently, increasing the use of no-till technology, and planting cover crops,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding. “We know that we need to cultivate tomorrow to feed the future, and that requires stewardship of our resources today.”
Many types of best management practices and projects help reduce nutrient and sediment-water pollution, including applying fertilizer efficiently, planting trees on streambanks, installing fencing to keep livestock out of water, practicing no-till farming, managing manure correctly, and restoring streams and floodplains to more natural conditions.
Also, according to EPA’s initial assessment, Pennsylvania carried out nutrient and manure management, cover crop, soil and water conservation planning, and non-agriculture erosion and sediment control best management practices at twice the rate in 2019-20 as its long-term annual rate.
Although the pandemic made it difficult to get boots on the ground in 2020, state and county partners persevered in engaging landowners for upcoming projects and launching or completing current projects.
Building on several years of leading the collaborative movement of many partners to plant trees along streams, DCNR launched the Buffer My Stream outreach campaign, resulting in contacts with more than 180 landowners, with plantings occurring last fall and into this year. The department also implemented a new Lawn Conversion Program in 2020, resulting in approximately 20 acres of installations.
“Streamside buffers and converting grass to trees or meadows are natural ways for agricultural and residential landowners to create cleaner water and improve the stewardship of their land,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “Not all eligible landowners are aware of their value, so our efforts last year focused on making it easy for landowners to understand the benefits of these practices and connect them with funding and experts available to guide them.”
The Phase 3 WIP takes a Healthy Waters, Healthy Communities approach, inviting county teams to take control of local water quality improvement, with state and other partners providing as much data, technical assistance, funding, and other support as possible. It encourages and equips counties to develop strategies and determine project sites and types that will benefit their communities and farmers, municipalities, businesses, and other landowners, while restoring the environment.
State government and sector partners have responded as much as possible to county leaders’ requests for specific types of assistance. In 2020 this included developing a new guide that clarifies the permitting process on watershed projects and holding web-based trainings and weekly coordination calls with the eight Tier 1 and 2 counties. In addition, DEP, the Department of Agriculture, and DCNR continued efforts to find and provide as much funding as possible to support water quality improvement projects by counties, farmers, and other landowners.
In 2020, four counties—Bedford, Centre, Cumberland, and Lebanon—completed Countywide Action Plans (CAPs), identifying priority initiatives and best management practices to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. Twenty-six more counties agreed to develop their plans in 2021. These 30 counties join four that completed CAPs in 2019: Lancaster, York, Franklin, and Adams counties.
All 34 counties that were asked to develop and carry out plans to reduce their share of nutrient and sediment pollution have signed on to do so.
Lancaster County, which is pursuing the largest nutrient reduction goal in Pennsylvania’s share of the watershed, began or completed projects at many municipal, farm, or other sites in 2020, including the City of Lancaster, Culliton Park, Murry Ridge Park, Paradise and Rapho townships, Woerth It Hollow Farm, and other locations.
“We’ve definitely had success with on-the-ground project implementation. The funding that DEP gave us for CAP implementation, and the flexibility of those dollars, has been extremely helpful,” said Allyson Gibson, Lancaster Countywide Action Plan coordinator. “We appreciate being able to get that to projects on the ground quickly and be responsive to the local decision making.”
Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Susquehanna counties are among the northern counties developing CAPs in 2021. The three counties will share a plan coordinator but create individual CAPs.
“By working together with local stakeholders to develop clean water action plans for each county, we’ll identify opportunities for improving water quality that align with unique local needs and interests,” said Josh Longmore, Executive Director of the Luzerne Conservation District. “Through our regional partnership on a planning grant from DEP, we’ll also be able to develop plans that take into account our shared challenges to reducing pollutants in the Susquehanna River, its local tributaries, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.”
Actions to help foster a healthy watershed benefit all aspects of Pennsylvanians’ lives, from providing safe drinking water to protecting soil quality for better crop yield, reducing flooding, and providing outdoor recreation enjoyment and employment.
“We forged a new level of state, local, and sector partnership in 2018 to develop a truly viable watershed plan from the ground up,” said Secretary McDonnell. “Today we’re seeing just how strong that partnership is. Real commitment to improve water quality has taken root.”
For more details on Phase 3 WIP work and outcomes last year, find the 2020 Pennsylvania Programmatic Milestone Status Report at Tracking Pennsylvania’s Progress and see the first eight Countywide Action Plans.