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Summary of Hearing on Wolf Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Reboot Strategy

Summary of Hearing on Wolf Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Reboot Strategy

 

FYI

 

Agriculture and Rural Affairs and Environmental Resources and Energy Committees

2/29/16, 12:00 p.m., Room 60 East Wing Rotunda

By Trevor J. Monk, PLS

The committees held a joint informational hearing on the Wolf Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Reboot Strategy, which is aimed to improve local water quality and restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

Russell Redding, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA); and John Quigley, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protections (DEP); were present on behalf of PDA and DEP.

Sec. Redding explained that PDA is responsible for a “significant piece” of the nutrient reductions. He continued that PDA oversees 33,000 farms. He noted several competencies were considered when beginning to develop the new strategy. He explained that as a result of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consent decree in 2010, the EPA established a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Bay, which requires Pennsylvania to develop plans to meet specific target reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment load in phases. He continued that Pennsylvania’s Phase 2 Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) has interim targets for those reductions to be achieved in 2017. Additionally, Sec. Redding explained that Pennsylvania has an obligation to protect local water quality that was established from the Clean Streams Law, which was established before the EPA deadline to under the TMDL. “We recognized that for any strategy to succeed that we had to focus on local water quality as our primary concern,” said Sec. Redding. He noted that local water quality improvements directly translate into cleaning the Bay and TMDL requirements.

From an agricultural perspective, Sec. Redding explained the strategy also recognizes two goals for success: clean water and viable farms. He explained that PDA is dedicated to making sure all farms do the right things, but also making sure that all farms are getting the credit for what they are doing. Sec. Redding contended that the Chesapeake Bay model is incomplete and does not include “non-cost-shared best management practices (BMPs).”

Sec. Redding commented that there are many steps that need to be taken to restore the Bay, and said, “Like many things in life there is tension between the aspiration and the practical…there are a lot of variables in this discussion that can create tension, but I believe it can be a healthy tension.”

Sec. Quigley explained that Pennsylvania’s obligation not only stems from federal court decrees, but also from the Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law and the Pennsylvania Constitution, which declares that clean water is a right for all Pennsylvanians. He continued that restoring and maintaining local water quality is a shared responsibility. Sec. Quigley explained that the new Bay model is a collaborative effort with PDA, DEP, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which is developing a flexible buffer program, and other stakeholders in the design and development of the reboot.

Sec. Quigley went on to detail certain challenges during the design and reboot. He explained Pennsylvania also faces the challenge of antiquated data. He noted that DEP has only been able to load data on cost-share BMPs in to the EPA Bay model and not non-cost-share BMPs. As a means to rectify the absence of non-cost-share BMPs in the Bay model, Sec. Quigley explained that DEP and PDA are collaborating with Penn State and other stakeholders to complete a comprehensive, voluntary farm survey to locate, quantify and verify previously undocumented BMPs. “We want Pennsylvania Farmers to obtain maximum credit, both publicly and in the Bay model, for the good work they are doing to restore local water quality,” Sec. Quigley said.

With respect to the Bay model, Sec. Quigley commented, “Conditions in the real world are not reflected in the output of the Bay Model.” He went on that the Bay model shows that Pennsylvania has reduced its phosphorus by 25 percent, nitrogen by 6 percent, and sediment by 15 percent. In contrast to the Bay model output, Sec. Quigley explained that in 2015 the US Geological Survey (USGS) found that water quality in Pennsylvania is significantly better than the Bay model. “According to the USGS, phosphorous is down 25 percent, sediment is down 25 percent, and nitrogen is down 25 percent. So the real world results seem to be significantly at odds with the EPA’s Bay model,” said Sec. Quigley. He noted that the EPA Bay model will be recalibrated in 2017.

Turning to other challenges facing the Bay restoration, Sec. Quigley explained the more than 33,600 farms in the Bay watershed make Pennsylvania’s obligation larger than the other states. Sec. Quigley also noted that inspection and compliance verification activities related to agriculture and urban storm water sources have been missing from the Bay model. He added that the EPA recommends that DEP inspect 10 percent of the total farms annually. “We are inspecting less than 2 percent of farms annually and we just meet the 10 percent inspection threshold for the first time in 2014,” said Sec. Quigley. Further, Sec. Quigley noted that 191 Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) along the Bay watershed that have invested roughly $1.4 million and are meeting their 2017 goals.

Chairman Causer commented that he is glad to hear that DEP and PDA are trying to get farmers the credit they deserve. Speaking to the new partnership between DEP and conservation districts, Chairman Causer asked if the conservation districts were involved with the development of the new Bay reboot strategy. Sec. Quigley answered that not all conservation district managers were involved during the development of the new Bay reboot, but all conservation districts were briefed on the Bay reboot strategy. He noted that all conservation districts managers will be meeting to discuss the changes next week.

Chairman Causer asked what roles the conservation districts will play as the reviews go forward. Sec. Quigley explained that DEP will shift existing funding, which is provided annually, to conservation districts from conducting 100 educational visits per year to a minimum of 50 inspections per technician per year. Sec. Quigley explained that the initial compliance inspection focus will be to ensure that farmers have Manure Management Plans and Erosion and Sedimentation Plans. Sec. Quigley acknowledged concerns with the reboot strategy from some of the state’s conservation districts. He confirmed that the DEP has been working directly with the conservation districts to ensure that they understand the new approach, and will be meeting with district managers to review and discuss new standard operating procedure. He noted that the role being suggested for conservation districts is not fundamentally different than the role they are currently playing in other programs. Chairman Causer expressed concerns about how farmers will react to the conservation districts shift.

Minority Chairman Carroll asked what will happen if all the conservation districts decide to opt out of their new role in the Bay reboot strategy. Sec. Quigley explained that the annual conservation district funding would be withheld by DEP for the purposes of hiring people at DEP to carry out the task. Sec. Redding explained that the new path forward will require the help of conservation districts because they know the soils and water and how to complete compliance inspections as related to Nutrient Management and Erosion and Sedimentation regulatory programs. In sum, Sec. Redding contended that there is no way to get the job done without the conservation districts.

Chairman Carroll expressed his support for having Manure Management Plans and Erosion and Sedimentation Plans in place and contended that conservation districts’ interactions with local farmers are preferable to DEP inspectors showing up at a farm. Further, Chairman Carroll expressed his appreciation for the agencies’ sensitivity as related to the role of the conservation districts.

Rep. Tobash concurred that it is critical to maintain the relationships between the conservation districts and farmers. Rep. Tobash went on to cite a Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) report from 2013, titled “A Cost Effective Alternative Approach to Meeting Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay nutrient Reduction Targets,” which indicated that a competitive request for proposal (RPF) could dramatically lower overall compliance costs by 80 percent for nonpoint agriculture and urban runoff. Rep. Tobash asked what DEP is doing to incorporate the findings of the LBFC report. Sec. Quigley concurred that it is important to look for the lowest and most cost effective solutions for the Bay reboot strategy. He continued that MS4 communities are trying to provide a marketplace solution and have already made investments in upgrading their facilities. Sec. Quigley explained that further interstate trading may be needed along with initiatives to attract the capital for competitive RFP programs. Rep. Tobash restated his previous question and asked Sec. Quigley if he seriously looked at the LBFC study. Sec. Quigley answered that he did read the study and acknowledged the LBFC recommendation to increase the use the use of advanced technology projects to help meet Pennsylvania’s TMDL loads. Further, Sec. Quigley commented that advanced technology projects will not solve the problem entirely. He argued that the most cost effective BMP is the conservation of riparian forest buffers and riparian grass buffers to be used in tandem with advanced technology projects.

Rep. Tobash asked what DEP is doing to make coal refuse viable. Sec. Quigley explained that DEP advocates for the economic viability of coal refuse entities, and is currently working with the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association (ARIPPA) and individual plant owners to explore ways to support the viable use of coal refuses.

Rep. Lawrence asked Sec. Quigley if DEP has the statutory authority to direct conservation districts to follow the guidelines under the Bay reboot strategy. Sec. Quigley answered that DEP does not have statutory authority and has contractual agreements with the conservation districts for the services they provide.

Rep. Lawrence recalled Sec. Quigley’s comment, “So the real world results seem to be significantly at odds with the EPA’s Bay model,” and commented that a $3.6 billion investment to meet the states’ obligation by 2025 is a “significant investment” on the grounds of using antiquated data. Rep. Lawrence asked for additional insight related to the true cost to fix the Bay situation. Sec. Quigley concurred that the EPA Bay model does understate the amount of progress that Pennsylvania has made, and stated, “But there is no question that we need to invest in restoring the local water quality of the waters and streams in Pennsylvania.” He contended that the Penn State farmer survey will provided needed information moving forward, and that smart policy will help reduce the overall cost.

Rep. Barbin asked if DEP uses electronic reporting mediums to meet the EPA goal of inspecting 10 percent of farms and MS4s in the watershed annually. Sec. Quigley stated that DEP does use electronic reporting, but is antiquated. He went on to explain that DEP is making an investment to update the conservation districts’ technology to improve their gathering and managing plans.

Rep. Barbin suggested using advanced technologies to incentivize the conservation districts to inspect the farms and MS4s, instead of hiring a new employee for “$70,000.” He further argued that conservation districts are more likely to be able to connect with farmers to establish the necessary plans.

Chairman Maher asked for Sec. Quigley to elaborate on the comparative differences between the EPA Bay model statistics and the USGS survey statistics. Sec. Quigley explained the EPA Bay model shows that Pennsylvania has reduced its phosphorus by 25 percent, nitrogen by 6 percent and sediment by 15 percent. In contrast to the Bay model output, Sec. Quigley explained the USGS in 2015 showed that phosphorous is down 25 percent, sediment is down 25 percent, and nitrogen is down 25 percent. Sec. Quigley commented that the real world results are at odd with the EPA’s Bay model, but will be recalibrated in 2017. Chairman Maher noted that is a significant difference.

Chairman Maher recalled 2010 testimony in which DEP expressed dissatisfaction with the EPA Bay model because it is disconnected from the real world data. Chairman Maher continued explaining that the data is being generated from a computer model and not by scientists actually testing the water. Chairman Maher further recalled that DEP said it would work with the federal government to make sure the EPA Bay model was accurate back in 2010, which he noted, “didn’t happen.” Chairman Maher asked what efforts DEP is taking to force the EPA to make the Bay model reflect reality. Sec. Quigley reiterated that there is no question that Pennsylvania needs to improve local water quality and the EPA bay model, and argued that both need to be done. Sec. Quigley explained DEP established a DEP Chesapeake Bay Office to coordinate with EPA to discuss how Pennsylvania’s data is reflected in the 2017 Bay model recalibration.

Chairman Maher asked for any correspondence with the EPA to be shared with the committees. Sec. Quigley answered in the affirmative. Sec. Redding commented that although there is frustration with the EPA Bay model, roughly 80 percent of the data comes from cost share BMPs. He argued that the information that will be gathered from the farmer survey will be critical to prove that Pennsylvania’s agricultural landscape is utilizing the needed BMPs.

Chairman Maher asked who the director of the DEP Chesapeake Bay office is. Sec. Quigley answered that DEP is currently in the process of filling the position.

Chairman Maher explained that President Obama’s budget proposal looks to cut EPA Bay program funding and asked if DEP has undertaken correspondence with the White House to express their concerns. Sec. Quigley commented that he is dealing with his own budget problems right now, and would send a copy of any correspondence.

Rep. Moul asked if there is scientific evidence to support the notion that Pennsylvania’s efforts have made any substantial impacts on the health of the Bay. Sec. Quigley expressed his belief that “the science does indicate improvement in the Bay.” He further expressed his belief that Pennsylvania is “on the right track.”

Rep. Fee asked if the farmer survey will take into account BMPs that are not prescribed by the conservation districts. Sec. Redding answered in the affirmative but said it has not been captured at 100 percent. He stated that he would follow up with additional information.

Rep. Tallman asked Sec. Quigley if DEP monitors the Susquehanna River in real time. Sec. Quigley answered in the affirmative, but noted that the monitoring is in a limited amount. He expressed his hope that DEP is able to make upgrades to allow up to date monitoring.

Rep. Zimmerman commented on the effect of the drought on agriculture in the western part of the country, and asked if PDA is exploring initiatives to bring western agricultural production to Pennsylvania. Sec. Redding explained that PDA has received six inquires from farmers in California that are looking to move their production to Pennsylvania. He stated that he would follow up with additional information.

Dr. Richard Roush, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, expressed his personal commitment to engage both the College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State University more broadly in the Bay reboot strategy. He explained that the first step of the Bay reboot strategy will be to survey the more than 20,000 farmers to quantify conservation practice implementation in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed for which Pennsylvania has not been credited. He explained the survey was developed collaboratively by 10 government and industry organizations, and the questions were pre-tested and refined by farmers and conservation professionals. Dr. Roush elaborated that participation in the survey will be completely voluntary, but noted that respondents have been advised that 10 percent will be selected at random and contacted for farm visits by the Penn State Extension to asses inventory results, help researchers analyze, and better understand the responses, including the challenges faced by farmers in understating and using best practices. Dr. Roush noted that the Penn State Survey Research Center is administering the survey and, as of last week, the Survey Research Center reported roughly 1,200 completed surveys. He added that the Survey closes on April 30.

“I look forward to reviewing the results of the survey. However, it’s also clear that more needs to be done and can be done to meet water quality goals and public expectations in the streams and rivers of Pennsylvania, from both agriculture and urban run-off. It’s too easy to observe farms with cows in streams, straight pipes from milking barns toward streams, barnyards that runoff into streams, plowing and the application of manure right up to streams, manure spreading on frozen ground, and so on. We need better compliance on small farms and on properties managing horses, and better forest riparian buffer implementation in certain agricultural regions of the state. Further, better implementation of Best Management Practices is a key step, but probably not enough without a strategic change in our agricultural systems to sustainably address the regional nutrient imbalances from animal feed imports into Pennsylvania that have led to the current problems ,” Dr. Roush said.

Dr. Roush also commented that the College of Agricultural Sciences is hosting motivated leaders from throughout Pennsylvania’s agricultural and environmental community for the “Pennsylvania in the Balance” conference, which is tasked with identifying new, innovative solutions that can help Pennsylvania meet its water quality goals and further ensure a vibrant and productive agricultural industry.

In closing, Dr. Roush stated, “I must acknowledge that the lack of resolution regarding the state appropriation to the College, through the Land Scrip Fund, casts a shadow over our abilities to carry out the final stages of the current survey and otherwise contribute to water quality initiatives. As Penn State President Eric Barron announced at the University Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, and has shared directly with the Governor via a letter, if the current budget stalemate continues into April, we must begin the process for eliminating unfunded positions in the College, which would include all of Extension and many faculty positions at University Park, a total of more than 1,100 jobs across Pennsylvania.”

Rep. M. Keller expressed his satisfaction with the questionnaire, but noted that the survey is leaving out the home development communities. He contended that homeowners also need to be educated on the proper amount of fertilizer to use around their homes. Dr. Roush concurred with Rep. M. Keller’s observation and explained that a third of the pollutants going into the Bay are coming from urban storm runoff. He explained that six other colleges within Penn State have expressed their support to tackle the issue. He noted that the average homeowner applies twice as much fertilizer than is needed.

Chairman Causer alluded to Penn State’s funding issues that were brought on by the budget impasse, and commented, “This is an excellent opportunity to ask for your support of HB 1831, which is his bill to make an appropriation from the General Fund to the Department of Agriculture via transfer from the General Fund to the Agricultural College Land Scrip Fund. Chairman Causer went on to ask how the data from the farm visits will be used. Dr. Roush explained that Penn State recognizes the chance that people may not understand the questions that are being asked, and will give Penn State Extension the opportunity to spread the news of BMPs. He continued that the survey data will help reflect what other BMPs should be included. Chairman Causer asked if the survey information will be kept confidential. Dr. Roush answered in the affirmative.

Chairman Maher cited subject matter experts that testified in a previous hearing, and commented that the subject matter experts said BMPs alone will not be sufficient to meet the EPA goals. Chairman Maher asked if the EPA goal could be reached if farmers in Pennsylvania continue to raise the same crops and animals. Dr. Roush expressed optimism, and argued “it will take more than just the things we are doing right now.” He added that the solution and approach needs to be mixed. He noted that bringing crops from the western side of the country is a fundamental problem this is not helping.

Chairman Carroll explained that he represents Pittston Area school district, which prepares students to attend institution of higher learning like Penn State. He went on to argue that a full budget is better than HB 1831. He went on that the state needs a complete budget and not just agricultural line of the budget. Chairman Maher rebutted that Pittston Area school district may be in better shape if the governor had not vetoed half of the funding for Pennsylvania public schools.

Christopher Thompson, Manager of the Lancaster County Conservation District, explained that there are 66 conservation districts across Pennsylvania and each is led by a local board of directors who are familiar with their county’s natural resource concerns. “We strive for voluntary compliance and accomplish this mission through various programs and by coordinating help from public and private sector partnerships. When that mission intersects with the State’s goals and objectives for the land, water and other natural resources we are the local ‘boots on the ground’ that helps to get the work done,” said Thompson.

Thompson explained that one such goal of the conservation districts is the reduction of nutrients entering Pennsylvania’s tributaries leading to the Bay. “Fundamentally, conservation districts support the objectives of the Comprehensive Strategy to Improve Water Quality in the state. Whether you are in the Bay region or not, clean water and viable farms is paramount to our mission,” said Thompson. “The six elements listed in the January 21, 2016, joint press release are in line with our understanding about what it will take to accomplish the stated objective of ‘clean water and viable farms.’ However, we object to the lack of communication and collaboration by the agencies through the development process of the new program that so profoundly changes what we do and yet is so dependent on our participation,” said Thompson.

In closing, Thompson stated, “Recently, DEP and PDA have extended offers to meet with conservation districts and Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, our state association, to discuss accomplishing shared objectives, but with an eye to 2025 and achieving the 2010 mandated Clean Water Act goals and objectives we need to reinforce the principle that we work better for Pennsylvania when we work together.”

Chairman Maher asked how the conservation districts feel about their role being changed from “helper” to “enforcement agent,” and if it will change how farmers view the conservation districts. To the latter part of the question, Thompson answered in the affirmative, and argued that the conservation districts act as a buffer between DEP and the farmers. He elaborated that the role of the conservation districts has primarily been education and helping farmers implement BMPs. He described the new conservation district responsibilities as “dirty police,” which he explained some conservation districts are not willing to do, while others are willing.

Chairman Causer expressed his belief that conservation districts will be important in any Bay strategy moving forward, and expressed his hope that the conservation districts will take a seat at the planning table sooner rather than later. Chairman Causer asked what communications the conservation districts have received regarding the new role of the districts. Thompson disclosed that all the conservation district managers would be meeting in the next few weeks to see how the new responsibilities will be implemented. He noted that the deadline for the new plan is July 1, 2016.

Chairman Causer asked if the conservation districts are concerned with how the funding will be distributed. Thompson explained that the Bay program funding is filtered to the conservation districts technical staff, which will be carrying out the technical costs. He explained that the remainder of the funding will go to conducting compliance checks.

Rep. M. Keller asked Sec. Quigley how the Bay funding would be distributed. Sec. Quigley concurred with Thompson’s previous answer. Thompson elaborated that the EPA is directed by the federal government and as budget cuts continue, the responsibilities of the conservation districts will not go away.

Denise Coleman, State Conservationist, United States Department of Agriculture- Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), explained that NRCSs are in 41 counties and are collocated with conservation districts. She continued that NRCS has helped provide more than $200 million in financial assistance to farmers and forest landowners in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, most of which she noted was used for nutrient reduction. Coleman went on to explain that NRCS recently began targeting funds to key high-priority watersheds that have been designated by the USGS to have excessive nitrogen, sediment, and phosphorus loads. She explained that other agreements through NRCS leverages funds for direct on-the-ground technical and engineering assistance to install conservation practices including the Strategic Watershed Action Teams (SWAT) agreements. She explained that for the agreements, NRCS pays 75 percent of the funds and DEP and the conservation districts pay 25 percent to implement conservation practices. Coleman also commented that NRCS has recently begun to monitor the changing agricultural landscape through the use of advanced aerial imagining. She went on to explain that the aerial imagining is proving to be a useful monitoring tool and saves time. She noted that NRCS will be documenting the use of aerial imagining and will release a report on their findings.

Chairman Causer asked for clarification regarding how the conservation districts funding is provided, and if NRCS funds are paying for conservation district employees. Coleman explained that NRCS and conservation districts share mutual goals. She explained that NRCS provided 75 percent of conservation districts funding. To the latter part of the question, Coleman answered in the affirmative.

Chairman Causer asked how the NRCS feels about the conservation district compliance shift. Coleman expressed her hope that NRCS and conservation district staff are kept separate and distinct.

Chairman Causer asked if the NRCS helps identify BMP projects that are acceptable. Coleman explained that the NRCS is currently accepting every BMP that is currently included in the Bay model.

Rep. Tobash asked Thompson how long he has been with the Lancaster conservation district. Thompson answered that he has been the manager in Lancaster for 18 months, and was the assistant manager in York for six years.

Rep. Tobash asked how the conservation districts can help farmers get the credit for the BMPs that have already been completed. Thompson explained that capturing self-funded BMPs is a huge concern, and noted the farmer survey should help the process moving forward.

Rep. Tobash asked if the conservation districts and NRCS are looking at technology that might enable Pennsylvania to expand the agricultural industry in Pennsylvania. Coleman commented that NRCS is supportive of technologies in the field, and noted there are grants available that could help put technological solutions on the ground.

The following organizations submitted written testimony:

 

Erik A. Ross

Senior Lobbyist

Gmerek Government Relations, Inc.

The Locust Court Building

212 Locust Street Suite 300

Harrisburg, PA 17101

(717) 234-8525

(717) 574-3963 (Cell)

(717) 234-8812 (Fax)

eross@ggrgov.com

www.ggrgov.com

 

 

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