Despite growing efforts by farmers, municipalities, and many others working to restore clean water to the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania remains significantly off track. It will not meet its 2025 Blueprint commitments and does not yet have an EPA-approved final plan to do so. Wastewater is one area of success, but unlike in other states, it is not enough to make up for the lack of progress elsewhere. The scale of the agricultural challenge in Pennsylvania is enormous; more than 90 percent of remaining pollution reductions are expected from farms. The state’s new Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP) and increased funding for federal conservation programs are significant, but increased and sustained funding is critical. Climate change and the loss of farms and forests to development also challenge pollution reductions.
Pennsylvania’s Progress Toward Pollution Reductions
We used the Chesapeake Bay Program’s (CBP) scientific model to estimate pollution reductions made between 2009 and 2021 and whether those reductions are on a trajectory to meet the 2025 commitments. Pennsylvania’s pollution-reduction progress is summarized in the table below.
|Urban/Suburban Polluted Runoff
And Pollution Increasing
|Wastewater & Combined Sewer Outfall
|Projected loads more than 25% off target or pollution is increasing
|In Danger of Being Off Track
|Projected loads within 10-25% of target
|Projected loads less than 10% off target
|No contribution from this source sector
Evaluating Pennsylvania's Milestone Commitments
After examining the results of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s scientific model to estimate pollution reductions statewide and for each sector (see chart above), we evaluated Pennsylvania’s implementation of the programmatic commitments it made in its 2021 and 2022 milestones —in other words, the practices and policies the Commonwealth will use to get the job done. The following is our analysis of key Pennsylvania commitments.
Pennsylvania is meeting its 2025 Blueprint wastewater commitments ahead of schedule through more efficient treatment plant technologies and purchasing credits to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Combined-sewer overflows challenge many older communities, but they represent less than two percent of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen pollution from the wastewater sector.
Urban/Suburban Polluted Runoff
The conversion of fields and forests to development—coupled with the greater frequency and severity of storms due to climate change—is increasing polluted runoff from new and existing urban and suburban areas.
Commitment: Implementation of stormwater control practices in urbanized areas, in construction stormwater permits, and on developed areas outside of the scope of the permitting programs.
Progress: Off Track
Steps taken: The state budget included $25 million for a new Municipal Stormwater Assistance Program to help municipalities create and update stormwater management plans and implement practices to reduce polluted runoff. Additionally, $8.8 million was directed to planting trees along streets and streams, particularly in developed areas.
Steps needed: Municipalities must increase efforts to reduce polluted runoff from streets, buildings, and other hard surfaces common to developed areas. They should also consider forming partnerships, such as a regional stormwater joint venture, to reduce costs and maximize benefits through collaborative projects. Additionally, the state must update the guidance manual for designing and implementing practices that reduce polluted runoff, which was last substantially updated 16 years ago.
Pennsylvania is counting on agriculture to achieve more than 90 percent of its remaining nitrogen-pollution reductions. In 2021, model estimates indicated conservation practices by Pennsylvania farmers reduced nitrogen pollution by over two million pounds. Despite that progress, Pennsylvania remains significantly behind, and a major acceleration of conservation practices is needed to achieve its commitments.
Commitment: A comprehensive communication/outreach strategy to engage farmers/landowners in planting and maintaining riparian [streamside] forest buffers, and technical and financial assistance to achieve 95,000 acres of forested buffers by 2025.
Progress: Off Track
Steps taken: The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), in partnership with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, hired five Regional Watershed Forestry Specialists. To build community capacity to plan for, plant, and care for trees, DCNR is providing funding through the Community Conservation Partnership Program and the TreeVitalize Program, as well as public-private partnerships with Conservation Districts, CBF, and others.
Steps needed: To date, Pennsylvania has achieved approximately 13 percent of its 2025 commitment for forest buffers. Increased funding and technical assistance are required to accelerate the creation of the remaining 82,000 acres of new forest buffers, maintain existing buffers, and verify their location and condition. Sustained collaboration is needed to engage landowners in targeted, meaningful ways.
Commitment: Help farmers implement crop-and soil-management practices that improve soil health.
Progress: Off Track
Steps taken: The recently created Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP) will provide $154 million in technical and financial assistance to help farms across Pennsylvania adopt conservation practices that will improve soil health. This reduces erosion, nutrient and pesticide loss, and polluted runoff. However, this funding is finite and falls short of what is needed.
Steps needed: Pennsylvania must provide a dedicated, stable funding source to sustain ACAP and ensure that it efficiently directs resources where they are most needed to reduce pollution.
Commitment: Implement Agricultural Compliance and Enforcement Strategy to ensure farms have plans to limit pollution from erosion, manure, and fertilizer.
Progress: Off Track
Steps taken: Since the initiation of the compliance and enforcement strategy in 2016, the Commonwealth has verified that 13,812 farms, covering just over half of the agricultural acreage in the Chesapeake watershed, had the required plans. In the most recent reporting period (2020-21) 2,650 farms were reviewed. Almost 70 percent of these had plans at the time of inspection, and 99 percent did at the end of the fiscal year. Despite this progress, reviews are still needed on half of the Pennsylvania farms in the Bay watershed.
Steps needed: The Commonwealth needs to step up the pace of inspections. More importantly, farms now require financial and technical assistance to implement the practices outlined in the plans, and verification of these practices is needed for accurate calculations in the scientific model that the Chesapeake Bay Program uses to gauge pollution reductions.
Finishing the Job in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is not on track to meet its 2025 pollution-reduction commitments, remains significantly behind in meeting them, and lacks an adequate plan to achieve them.
However, the Commonwealth has momentum. The $220 million Clean Streams Fund (CSF) in this year’s budget, which includes the new Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP), is an unprecedented and critical down payment on clean water efforts. Moreover, counties across the Bay watershed have developed action plans to reduce pollution, creating a strong sense of optimism and commitment from local officials, landowners, and others.
Nonetheless, there is an enormous amount of work to do. These programs and plans need significant, sustained funding to succeed and vastly accelerate pollution reductions. Advances in high-resolution mapping and modeling can now focus priority practices, like forested buffers, where they have the greatest impact. Resources should be targeted toward those areas and practices.
Furthermore, the loss of forests and growing areas of hard surfaces due to development threaten progress, especially when coupled with the impacts of climate change. Local governments, which hold much of the decision-making authority over land use in Pennsylvania, must update planning and zoning policies to preserve sensitive landscapes, limit the proliferation of hard surfaces, and better manage stormwater to address this challenge.
Pennsylvania cannot afford to squander the opportunity of this moment. Bold leadership, commitment, and investment are critical to truly get the Commonwealth—and by extension the entire Bay partnership—back on track.