HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – Pennsylvania is home to over 85,000 miles of waterways which all feed into one of six major watersheds. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, one-third of Pennsylvania rivers and streams are not safe for fishing, swimming or drinking.
State lawmakers recently took a big step toward making those waterways safer, cleaner, and more enjoyable.
The recently-established “Clean Streams Fund” will provide $220 million remaining American Rescue Plan dollars to fight decades of water pollution. Lawmakers hope the fund will create a ripple effect for improved water quality.
“This is a statewide effort to clean up our own water,” said State Senator Gene Yaw (R-23). “The whole idea is pretty simple. If we clean up our water, what happens downstream will take care of itself,” Yaw added.
Yaw, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, says the fund addresses decades of non-point source pollution like agricultural runoff and abandoned mine drainage.
Historically, the state’s efforts to remediate its waterways have focused on point sources of pollution, like wastewater treatment plants.
“It’s been an issue for years. We have more impaired streams, I think, than virtually every other state,” said Yaw. “Don’t take that as being that bad, we have more streams than most other states,” Yaw added.
The roughly 85,000 miles of rivers, streams and creeks in the Commonwealth are equivalent to about three-and-a-half trips around the planet. But even after decades of poor water quality, Yaw says he sees the glass half-full.
“There’s no question it’s a huge expenditure. We think it’ll work,” said Yaw.
The majority of the $220 million will be allocated to the Agriculture Conservation Assistance Program to help farms prevent runoff of fertilizer and other nutrients.
“It will help farmers to do things like plant riparian buffers, to plant grasses, to plant trees along a stream bed,” said Yaw.
Yaw says these and other best management practices will create a ripple effect for improved water quality downstream.
“We need to do that type of stuff and rather than farm right out to the edge of a stream and I think that the whole focus of that is to provide assistance to farmers to get them to understand that this buffer area is like a filter,” said Yaw. “What happens downstream, we think, is going to be a real benefit for Chesapeake Bay,” Yaw added.
Lawmakers also say the fund will impact water quality beyond the Chesapeake and the Susquehanna River Basin.
“This money can be used statewide for stream restoration projects,” said State Senator Dan Laughlin (R-49). “Up in Erie County, virtually every stream that we have heads into Lake Erie, so it’s very important that we keep those streams clean,” Laughlin added.
Laughlin, who played a key role in the formation of the fund along with Senators Yaw and Scott Martin (R-13), says water quality and runoff mitigation is essential for Lake Erie and the entire region.
“One of the issues within the Lake Erie watershed is algae blooms that occur, it seems, every year now,” said Laughlin. “A lot of that is done by the nitrates that make it into the lake, a lot of that is fertilizer runoff. Whatever doesn’t get absorbed by the plants winds up into the water,” said Laughlin.
According to lawmakers, Pennsylvania’s waterways support a roughly $27 billion outdoor recreation industry and nearly 400,000 jobs.