Bay Journal

PA legislators look for ways to fund environmental programs

Budget cuts further threaten initiatives that are already falling behind on reaching their goals

  • By Donna Morelli on June 04, 2017
Legislation has been drafted to renew Pennsylvania’s popular Growing Greener program, which over nearly two decades has poured roughly $1.3 billion into protecting water resources and preserving open space and farmland. (Donna Morelli)

Pennsylvania advocates for the Bay and clean water are hoping for new dedicated funding to clean up the Susquehanna River in the midst of another tough budget year in Harrisburg, where environmental programs are being cut again.

Legislation has been introduced to renew Pennsylvania’s popular Growing Greener program, which over nearly two decades has poured roughly $1.3 billion into protecting water resources and preserving open space and farmland.

But the Growing Greener program is running short of money, and lawmakers have yet to figure out how to pay for a new round of projects. Nor are they any closer to finding the increased funds needed to deal with Pennsylvania’s polluted streams and rivers, its lax oversight of drinking water safety or its federally mandated obligation to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

In late May, Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, introduced SB 705, which is similar to last year’s unsuccessful Growing Greener legislation.  A House bill is expected to be introduced later this month.

As introduced, the bill would establish what supporters call “a framework” for a new Growing Greener III program. It would expand the number of state agencies eligible to receive funding, and authorize spending on efforts to conserve forests and improve water quality. The Growing Greener Coalition, an alliance of conservation, recreation and preservation groups, has identified $315 million a year in needed spending on projects supporting clean water, locally grown food, parks, trails and outdoor recreation.

Under the draft legislation, up to 40 percent would have to be spent in the Susquehanna basin, the largest source of fresh water – and pollution – to the Bay. Advocates hope that will address at least some of Pennsylvania’s shortcomings in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution reaching the Chesapeake.

Killion’s Growing Greener bill enjoys bipartisan support from a majority of the state Senate. However, it fails to identify a source of funding for the new projects. And existing funding for Growing Greener has decreased 75 percent over the last decade, from about $200 million a year in the mid-2000s to $57 million this year. The legislation doesn’t address how to reverse that.

Andrew Heath, the Growing Greener Coalition’s executive director, said supporters want to build public and legislative support for continuing the program first and then try to corral funding for it later.

“Instead of having any opposition right now, we want to set the framework for the funding,” Heath said.  “Whatever revenue the state uses to balance the budget---whatever that catalyst is-- we want to be part of that.”

Budget discussions have little time to progress before the June 30 deadline, and the Growing Greener legislation has just been introduced.

“Nobody is talking about it significantly, and it is May; our objective now is the budget,” said Jeffrey Cluckey, budget and environmental analyst for the House Appropriations Committee.

Begun in 1999, Growing Greener has developed hundreds of local parks and trails, conserved more than 80,000 acres of open space, and restored hundreds of miles of streams and waterways. It’s also preserved more than 78,000 acres of farmland, cleaned up abandoned mine land and funded more than 100 water and sewage system upgrades.

When first established, lawmakers committed $645 million to it for five years. Then in 2002, the legislature voted to give it a permanent source of revenue, from a tipping fee imposed on garbage haulers.  In 2005, Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly approved a $625 million bond issue to continue the program, dubbed Growing Greener II, for another six years with borrowed money. 

Now, the Growing Greener II proceeds have been spent or committed, and roughly half the tipping fee revenue is going to pay down the debt.

Growing Greener is the closest thing Pennsylvania has to funds in Maryland and Virginia dedicated to water quality projects and Bay restoration. Those two states are on track to meet their 2025 cleanup goals under the Bay “pollution diet” imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, while Pennsylvania is far short of doing what’s needed to reduce nitrogen and sediment reaching the Chesapeake, according to EPA.

Cost estimates of what Pennsylvania would need to invest annually to get on track range from as low as $241 million in a 2013 Penn State study to $674 million in a University of Maryland report last year. The state is now spending about $140 million annually.

The Pennsylvania delegation of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission is calling on the state to create a water fund, which would be used to restore local water quality as well as meet the state’s obligations to the Bay restoration effort – something the EPA has demanded in letters to the state.  Pennsylvania has 19,000 miles of impaired rivers and streams, the most of any state in the nation.

“We’re finally beginning to see the consequences of the stark reality of not paying attention to water quality issues,” said Marel King, Pennsylvania director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “There are those who believe that the state shouldn’t be raising any new revenue. In Pennsylvania, I would argue that we have a constitutional responsibility to manage our resources for the benefit of all.”

Rep. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster, one of five Pennsylvania lawmakers on the Bay Commission, reintroduced a bill, HB 20, in late May that would raise money for water-related programs and state agencies by levying a fee on commercial and industrial water withdrawals.  As drafted, it’s projected to raise $250 million a year, with proceeds to be spent across the state based on where the fees were paid. About $65 million of what’s raised would go to replenish the budgets of underfunded state agencies.

Sturla, who saw the water-fee bill go nowhere last year, said he hoped fellow lawmakers would take a closer look now because "we have no money to fund water projects." The bill has only five cosponsors so far, and Sturla acknowledged that it's probably too late to do anything this year. But he said he wanted to get legislators at least talking about the water fee in preparation for a vote next year.

"It’s about time we start to understand that this is a resource that we give away," Sturla said. "If you went west of the Mississippi (River) and ask if they get their water for free, they’d laugh of you and wonder if you're from another planet."

The bill would levy a fee of 0.1 cent per gallon on water withdrawals greater than 10,000 gallons per day, with the fee reduced to 0.01 cent per gallon if similar amounts of water withdrawn are returned to the source. Agricultural and municipal withdrawals would be exempt. 

“We are looking at many ways on where to come up with additional funding,” said State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, chairman of the commission. "I’m planning on introducing the water use fee bill again this year. I just don’t see given the other pressures on our general fund that we could find sufficient enough resources to allocate for a dedicated water quality fund.”

But while Gov. Tom Wolf and the legislature struggle to balance next year’s budget, there is little political appetite for creating new revenue sources, either through taxes or fees on industry, King said. Revenue projections in April were off $500 million, and estimates of the budget gap for next year are close to $2 billion.

Both the House and Wolf’s budgets call for additional cuts to environmental agencies, which have endured drastic reductions in funding for at least a decade. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection got $248 million this year, about the same as in 2003. The approved House budget carves out more from DEP’s budget, including cuts to general operations, environmental programs and support to conservation districts.

“There is a target on the back of the environment,” said Ezra Thrush, state lead for the Choose Clean Water Campaign in Pennsylvania. “It’s the number one program being hit by both budgets right now.”

These reductions come at a time when the state has been repeatedly warned by EPA that it isn’t meeting federal requirements. EPA temporarily withheld funds in 2015 to show its displeasure over Pennsylvania’s lack of progress with the Bay cleanup, and the federal agency warned DEP late last year it lacked the staff to ensure the safety of public drinking water systems around the state. EPA has threatened to step in and take over regulation of Pennsylvania’s water systems if the understaffing isn’t remedied.

DEP recently won approval from the state Environmental Quality Review Board to raise new annual fees on public water suppliers, a move expected to yield $7.5 million and allow the department to hire more inspectors in its Safe Drinking Water program. But EPA said it still could take up to two years to raise the funds and get new staff on board, and it pressed for quicker action. 

“Governor Wolf and DEP are examining what temporary funding could be available to increase inspectors until the Department can complete the process to fund them through new fee structures,” said Neil Shader, DEP spokesman said. But he added that “the commonwealth’s financial picture makes this difficult,” and it isn’t helped by the Trump administration’s proposal to slash federal funding for EPA, much of which is passed through to states like Pennsylvania.

About Donna Morelli
Donna Morelli is a staff writer for the Bay Journal based in Harrisburg. She's the former director of the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Donna Morelli

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