Chesapeake Bay, USDA photo, creative commons, flickr https://flic.kr/p/nGtrxc

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania plans to emphasize the most effective pollution reductions as it embarks on the last stage of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

The state has finalized a plan to achieve 25 million of the 34 million pounds of its nitrogen reductions required by the 2025 deadline.

Some 17 million pounds of nitrogen reductions are expected to come from agriculture.

Farms are Pennsylvania’s largest source of bay pollution, but producers can reduce nutrient runoff by complying with existing regulation, improving the soil’s ability to absorb rainfall, and planting grass or forested stream buffers.

Funding the ag practices will cost the state $187 million per year, according to Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

Swanson spoke at a Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing on Jan. 8 during the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Environmental groups are irked that the state isn’t planning to hit full compliance by 2025, but Pennsylvania has been lagging on nitrogen reductions for years.

The state’s plan focuses on four counties — Lancaster, York, Adams and Franklin — that are top sources of bay pollution.

“It’s about focus. It’s about trying to figure out: Where can we capture those loads with the greatest efficiency?” Swanson said.

The latest cleanup plan’s achievements are giving the cleanup a price tag and focusing attention on a few highly effective ag conservation practices, said Ag Secretary Russell Redding.

For the first time, the plan also accounts for fertilizer used in nonagricultural settings.

“The largest single crop in the bay watershed is grass,” Redding said. “It’s a lawn.”

Redding praised Committee Chairman Gene Yaw’s bill to create a licensing program for commercial and public fertilizer applicators — similar to the certification required for pesticide users.

But farmers are also bristling at the growing use of municipal stormwater fees to fund bay cleanup work.

The fees are charged based on a property’s amount of impervious surfaces such as roofs and pavement, which produce fast-moving, pollutant-carrying runoff.

Farms, which typically have many buildings, face stormwater bills in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. But farms also include large amounts of land that absorb rainwater, and many farmers have done work to reduce runoff.

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is working with Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, to create a stormwater fee system that recognizes the environmental benefits farms provide, said David Graybill, a dairy farmer from Juniata County.

Swanson credited Pennsylvania for making strides with wastewater and especially agricultural pollution.

But the state is seeing increasing problems with urban runoff and septic systems.

“Those loads are eclipsing the reductions you made in wastewater, so essentially the net reductions have all come from agriculture,” Swanson said.

To accelerate progress, Swanson recommended Pennsylvania create a dedicated bay fund, as Maryland and Virginia have done for ag and wastewater.

With a $5-a-month fee, Maryland raises $180 million a year. The state has used that money to upgrade its 66 largest sewage treatment plants.

With state-of-the-art nitrogen removal, the plants are emitting a sliver of the pollution they previously did, Swanson said.

The dedicated funds ensure the states continue to focus on their bay priorities.

“Essentially, money buys progress,” Swanson said.

Lancaster Farming

Special Sections Editor

Courtney Love is Special Sections Editor at Lancaster Farming. She can be reached at 717-721-4426 or clove@lancasterfarming.com