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Susquehanna River could feel effect of Trump budget

Written by Brett Sholtis/York Daily Record | Mar 25, 2017 5:04 AM
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Boaters fish on the Susquehanna River just off the boat launch in Wrightsville along the Mason-Dixon Trail. Parts of the river are threatened by invasive species and pollution. (Photo: Kate Penn, Kate Penn, York Daily Record)

 

Efforts to monitor and clean the Susquehanna River could cease under President Donald Trump's proposed budget cuts.

(York) President Donald J. Trump's recent budget proposal includes the de-funding of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program.

The program, launched in 1983, received $73 million in 2016. Among other things, it has paid for efforts to stop pollution -- farm runoff, mostly -- from entering the Susquehanna River in York, Lancaster and other counties that surround the river.

Part of the river, starting near Harrisburg and flowing south, repeatedly makes the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's list of streams "impaired" by pollution.

The smallmouth bass population has decreased, while invasive species have plagued the waterway. The nitrogen-heavy water flows into the Chesapeake Bay, where it continues to cause problems for oysters, crabs and other species.

The proposed budget throws more uncertainty onto an already uncertain situation. Pennsylvania recently stated that it will fail to meet its 2017 river pollution-reduction goals -- the only Chesapeake Bay state that will not meet them.

Now environmental advocates question the future of the program itself, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stands to see drastic cuts.

Here's a look at what a de-funded Chesapeake Bay Program would mean for the part of the Susquehanna River that flows through south central Pennsylvania.

President Donald Trump's budget proposal would eliminate federal funding for the program that has coordinated Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts for decades. Eileen Joyce, York Daily Record

No money for water monitoring

Seventy-six water monitoring stations dot the Susquehanna River, said Neil Shader, DEP spokesman. Those stations require scientists from the department, as well as other groups such as the U.S. Geological Survey and Susquehanna River Basin Commission, to check on them.

The budget cut would completely staunch funding for that effort, Shader said.

That data isn't only used to ensure that the water is clean, said Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania's executive director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The information is also plugged into a sophisticated computer model, which has been used to target certain problem areas -- an approach that has led to "long-term improvements" in the bay since efforts to cut pollution there began in the 1970s.

"It's clearer than it's been in decades," Campbell said. "There are more crabs. The oyster population is rebounding."

Of course, the cuts also mean the scientists who do the work could lose their jobs, Shader said. The DEP employs 2,414 people, and jobs would also be at risk among employees who conduct inspections and provide technical assistance.

Cuts for farmers

Pennsylvania has 19,000 miles of "impaired" streams, Campbell said, citing DEP data. Much of that is due to agricultural waste, which ends up in creeks and streams and into the Susquehanna.

Steps to prevent this are fairly simple, Campbell said. Buffers and other devices can be installed around farms to keep fertilizers from washing into streams. However, that costs money, and that money to assist farmers will no longer be available.

Farmers often get blamed for river pollution, but many want to install these devices, said Mark O'Neill, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman.

"There's farmers on waiting lists for this money," O'Neill said.

Even with the federal funds, farmers often end up spending a lot of their own money to set up measures to keep fertilizer on their land and out of streams, O'Neill said. Without federal aid, the full burden will be put on farmers, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat amid low milk and soybean prices.

Costs for municipal water providers

Ultimately, those cuts end up costing water companies money, Campbell said.

"Drinking water mostly comes from surface water sources," he said. "That water is directly taken from those rivers and streams."

He pointed to research that shows that every dollar invested in pollution control saves about $27 in water treatment costs.

Officials weigh in 

President Trump has long been a critic of the Environmental Protection Agency for imposing what he sees as burdensome regulations on businesses, and some supporters see the 31 percent cut to the EPA as a fulfillment of a promise to cut spending.

Some Republicans have endorsed the cut, while remaining guarded about discussing specific budget items. U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, said in an emailed statement that he was "encouraged that the President has proposed actual spending cuts and has committed to maintaining the overall cap on discretionary spending." He plans to study each item in the proposal and recommend changes.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-York County, said during a recent town hall meeting that "we need an appropriate level" of environmental regulation. However, he rejected the idea of the EPA "forcing" policy on the states.

Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement that he opposes these and other "dramatic cuts," and would work with congress to prevent the cuts from making it into the final budget.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pennsylvania, also planned to oppose the cuts. "This isn't a step forward for our rural committees and access to clean water, but a stunting mechanism to cut a program halfway to completion and continuing to break the promises (Trump) made to get into office," he said in an emailed statement.

The budget will almost certainly see changes as it passes through congress, said longtime Republican strategist Charlie Gerow. That may mean there's a compromise on bay funding, as well as many other issues.

"It's kind of like this health care bill that's going through congress now," Gerow said. "The first version is never the final enactment. It never is. There are significant alterations made to budgets. It's what they call the legislative process."

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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