By Ezra Thrush
Farmers and agriculture enthusiasts from across Pennsylvania will make their way to Harrisburg soon for the Keystone State’s largest farming event. It will be a time to celebrate our farmers and one of our most important economic drivers.
Across the world, but especially in Pennsylvania, we cannot talk about agriculture and farming without talking about the importance of clean water. Pennsylvania has the good fortune to be a water-rich state with 86,000 miles of rivers and streams. But one third of these waterways are suffering, many choked with excess nutrient and sediment pollution. Increased precipitation coupled with climate-induced extreme storms will further exacerbate water pollution and flooding problems.
Despite clean water being among the most essential of farming resources, the General Assembly has been failing in its responsibility to properly fund clean water initiatives. That’s why PennFuture is again calling on the General Assembly to spend more on conservation and agricultural best management practices that can benefit farms and communities across the Commonwealth.
All Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean water and a human right to a habitable climate. In particular, our farming communities perhaps have most at stake. Failure to invest in conservation and protect our groundwater and surface water resources puts farming families’ health and financial livelihoods at risk.
In recent years, drinking water studies have found alarming increases in the concentrations of nitrate, a chemical with links to cancer and birth defects. A 2020 Environmental Working Group investigation found elevated nitrate levels from fertilizer and manure within the tap water of large swathes of rural Pennsylvania, especially from well water sources.
Meanwhile, as more farms are developed into residential and commercial properties, stormwater runoff increases the speed and volume of local streams, putting farm properties at heightened risks of streambank erosion, localized flooding, and – as more productive soil disappears – diminished property values.
Conservation efforts are successful in slowing erosion rates. Still, nearly 4.5 tons of soil per acre of Pennsylvania’s cultivated cropland gets washed away each year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research. These eroded soils eventually make their way into our rivers and streams.
As climate change intensifies, many farms may experience greater levels of erosion unless practices such as riparian buffers or no-till farming are more widely adopted.
Projects that reduce stormwater runoff, halt erosion, and prevent flooding come at significant cost. In the Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds alone, cleaning up our rivers and streams is estimated to cost $521 million annually.
The Farm Show takes place during a critical time when the General Assembly is considering legislation that offers potential for much-needed investments for our waterways and our farmlands.
Senate Bill 832 would create a Clean Streams Fund, dedicating $250 million from the American Rescue Plan toward various clean-water initiatives. In it, a proposed Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP) would offer funding and technical support for properties that expand on-farm conservation practices.
Another important proposed piece of legislation, Senate Bill 525, would reinvigorate Growing Greener, a successful conservation program tasked with watershed protection and restoration. After years of reduced funding, the bill would infuse $500 million of ARP funds into a third iteration of the Growing Greener program.
Fortunately, many of the same practices that improve water quality can positively impact farm productivity and long-term financial viability. Rather than expect cash-strapped municipalities or overburdened farmers to pay for implementing these practices, the General Assembly needs to start allocating available funds to the critical task of cleaning our waterways.
Attendees at the Farm Show should make their voices heard and tell their elected representatives that now is the time to support clean water resources for all.
Ezra Thrush is the Senior Director for Government Affairs at PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy organization with five offices across Pennsylvania.