Riparian buffer
Trees, shrubs and grasses planted alongside streams reduce water pollution and bank erosion, protect aquatic environments and enhance wildlife habitat. Photo courtesy USDA

$220M Clean Streams Fund stands to benefit Delaware River watershed
The program, adopted as part of Pennsylvania’s new budget, seeks to improve and protect water quality by helping farmers.

| August 16, 2022

A newly created $220 million Pennsylvania state program largely aimed at improving and protecting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will also benefit communities and farms in the Delaware River watershed.

The program, the Clean Streams Funds, was recently included in the 2022-23 state budget and will underwrite initiatives to target so-called nonpoint pollution sources, such as stormwater runoff and harmful nutrient-rich discharges into waterways.

The money, which comes from the Biden administration’s pandemic relief package, the American Rescue Plan, will also be used to install riparian buffers along streams and fund efforts to reduce acid mine drainage.

As Delaware Currents has previously reported, 44.2 percent of the 10,491 stream miles in the basins that make up the Delaware River watershed in Pennsylvania were found in a recent report to be impaired.

Those streams failed to meet one or more water quality standards for four categories — drinking water, aquatic life, recreational uses or fish consumption. That means those streams were so contaminated or degraded as to pose a hazard to swimmers, canoeists and kayakers; to be unhealthy to eat fish or drink from its waters; or were harmful to aquatic life.

The Clean Streams Fund, which was spearheaded by Republican state Senators Scott Martin, Dan Laughlin and Gene Yaw, was designed to particularly benefit the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Pennsylvania, however money from the fund will be available statewide, Yaw said.

The impetus for the fund dates back to 2010, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state reached an agreement to make certain improvements to benefit the Chesapeake watershed by 2025.

“But people in 2010 said, ‘Yeah, well, we dodged this bullet until 2025’” and then suddenly it was 2022 and the deadline was three years away, Yaw said.

How the money gets divided

Of the $220 million, $154 million will be earmarked for a new Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program to support farmers’ efforts to reduce water pollution and improve soil quality.

An additional $22 million will increase funding for an existing Nutrient Management Fund, according to Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Smaller slices — $4.4 million to address abandoned mine drainage and $8.8 million for stormwater management — will be administered by the State Department of Environmental Protection. Other money will be earmarked for a clean water fund tailored to help small farms reduce sediment runoff.

Though the funding grew primarily out of a need to help the Chesapeake Bay, that watershed accounts for 43 out of 67 counties in Pennsylvania and thus will help a huge section of the state, Yaw said.

“If we clean up our water — it doesn’t matter if it’s the Delaware, the Susquehanna or the Chesapeake – then we don’t have to worry about what’s going in the downstream,” Yaw said.

Best practices exemplified

Luke Brubaker has a fourth-generation dairy farm in Mount Joy, in Lancaster County, Pa., with more than 1,300 cows and more than 1,000 acres of land. Two waterways, Charles Run and Donegal Creek, run through the property.

The Brubaker farm is a model for how farmers can adopt best management practices to benefit the environment and protect streams. The farm has long embraced such measures, such as installing fencing to keep cattle out of the waterways and planting six acres of trees on 20 feet of either side of the streams. The trees absorb nutrients and provide shade, which helps lower the temperature of the water, which, in turn, benefits trout.

Brubaker’s farm was honored last year with the Pennsylvania Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who lead by example in their dedication to protecting land, water and wildlife habitat resources.

Brubaker acknowledged there is some give and take by committing to the best practices, such as the tree planting. It meant losing what might be among the farm’s best, most fertile topsoil acreage. But he said it was a question of being a good steward of the land versus being greedy.

“All these practices that you do for the environment, for the Chesapeake Bay, and the neighbors, and it could be profitable?” asked Brubaker, 81. “Why wouldn’t you do it?”

Benefits of no-till farming

Kristina Heaney, the district manager of the Monroe County Conservation District in the Poconos in the Delaware River watershed, applauded the new funding.

“We were extremely excited to see that our legislators are taking environmental issues seriously and have allocated funding for programs and projects that will have a major impact on water quality,” she said. “These practices offer a ton of water quality benefits through vegetative filtration but also allow farmers to prevent their money and nutrient-rich soils from going down the drain, or river in this case.”

She said the district recently introduced a no-till drill program and may use some of the new funding to offset the costs of equipment maintenance and rental for farmers who commit to that practice.

How does no-till farming benefit water quality?

Heaney explains: In typical tilling operations, “more than six inches of soil are turned over to plant seed but that loose earth becomes highly susceptible to erosion and, subsequently, soil loss.”

“By using no-till practices you are inter-seeding or drilling the seed into the earth, reducing the surface disturbance,” she continued. “While this method is slower and more methodical, it reduces soil, nutrient and cover vegetation loss substantially and improves overall soil health.”

How the program will be implemented

As for how the Clean Streams Fund will be implemented, Grant Gulibon, an environmental specialist with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said specifics are being worked out by the State Conservation Commission.

The legislation creating the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program gave the commission the authority to allocate funds to county conservation districts based on where it will have the greatest impact.

According to Powers, that criteria include:

  • The number of agriculturally impaired stream miles – those that don’t meet standards set under the Clean Water Act
  • The number of cropland acres
  • The number of farms
  • The number of livestock and poultry

Conservation districts will be given the option to administer the program themselves or defer to the commission to administer the program in their counties, Powers said. Once the commission has set county funding levels, the process will be open to applicants.

How far will the money go?

Some of the funding will undoubtedly trickle into the Delaware River watershed though how much is unclear and inflationary pressures might dilute some of its reach.

But a look back at the costs of past water quality improvement projects suggests how far the money might stretch.

A 2000 study by the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service of riparian forest buffers estimated the costs at $218-$729 per acre. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $375 to $1,254 per acre.

And a 2013 report on a project led by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to improve the quality of Aughwick Creek in Huntingdon and Fulton Counties, Pa., found construction and stream monitoring averaged $16,000 for each farm that implemented conservation practices, the Farm Bureau said. Adjusted for inflation, those costs today would amount to $20,348.

Wayne Lehman, a natural resource specialist at the Schuylkill Conservation District, said efforts to improve water quality universally come down to two things: funding and staffing. There is no shortage of projects in need of both, he said.

“Every amount helps — $220 million is definitely a significant amount, especially when you look at farming,” he said. “Any time there is more funding for environmental projects, it’s going to be a win for the environment.”

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

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