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New EPA Assessment Shines a Light on a Cause of Chesapeake Bay Woes

Climate Justice

The Chesapeake Bay watershed and its restoration framework under the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) are so large and complex that it can be a real challenge to study, much less write about, the problem and the ongoing restoration efforts. This is why the recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment of the tiny Beck Creek watershed in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania is so valuable. The same activities that have fouled Beck Creek and the restoration practices that are working to revive it are the same problems and solutions familiar to all of us who study the Chesapeake Bay.

The biggest contributing source of nitrogen pollution in the Bay watershed is agriculture, and Pennsylvania sends the most nitrogen pollution into the Bay of any state in the region. Because of this, the small, agriculture-dominated watershed surrounding Beck Creek is literally the epicenter of the problem, making it an excellent test case for those looking to examine exactly how nutrient and sediment pollution happens and whether ongoing restoration efforts are working.

Beck Creek is a tributary of the Quittapahilla Creek, lovingly referred to as the “Quittie” by local residents and adopted as a name for local parks and stores in the towns it runs through, including Annville and Lebanon. Indeed, the Quittapahilla Watershed Association’s website pays tribute to the Quittie with a repository of images and photo essays offering a “welcome reminder of the power & beauty, and the fragility & vulnerability of the natural systems we are working to protect.” And while the small group of local volunteers shows affection and dedication for restoring their own local communities’ creek, their mission statement also highlights the inextricable link between tens of thousands of local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay: “Dedicated to cleaner water flowing from the Quittie to the Swatara to the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic & beyond.”

So what is the problem with Beck Creek? The EPA assessment found 13 farms within the tiny watershed, including seven dairy, four cattle, and two swine operations and examined the extent to which these operations complied with their relevant state and federal agricultural and environmental regulatory requirements. For example, one of the 13 operations was a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) requiring a federal Clean Water Act CAFO permit, while the rest were subject to Pennsylvania laws for nutrient management (for concentrated animal operations or “CAOs”), manure management (for other farms that generate, store, or apply manure), and agricultural erosion and sediment control (for any farm that plows, tills, or has heavy animal use areas).

In essence, what this EPA assessment did was provide real-world examples of the policy and enforcement deficiencies that we normally only describe as generalized phenomena or read about at the statewide or Bay-wide level. Here are a few highlights:

  • The only CAFO in the watershed did not properly adhere to its nutrient management plan, failing to account for how the manure generated was used.  
  • Of the ten animal operations that did not qualify as a federally regulated CAFO or state-regulated CAO, only two were implementing their manure management plans, including showing that the manure was applied appropriately, and five operations did not have either an erosion and sediment control plan or a soil conservation plan in place for the operation.  
  • Of the eight farms that had not developed and/or implemented a manure management plan or erosion and sediment control plan, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection had inspected none of them – meaning that this random assessment was the first time a deficiency was even discovered.  
  • While 10 of the 13 farms planted cover crops – a sizable percentage and an important conservation practice – seven of those 10 farms applied manure to their cover crops, which can negate their use as a conservation practice.  
  • A majority of the farms in the assessment, including half of the operations with a manure management plan, had applied manure during the winter, which is not prohibited in Pennsylvania (a policy failure) but which is well understood to be detrimental to water quality.

As noted in the EPA assessment, farms in Pennsylvania that produce, store, or apply manure have been subject to the Commonwealth’s Clean Stream Law requirements for manure management since 1977. In other words, these agricultural conservation laws and the basic understanding of how agriculture impacts water quality that brought about the laws’ passage are not new. Basic conservation practices should be well-accepted and fully incorporated into nearly all farms’ business practices and daily life by now. But this assessment shows that, at least in many parts of Pennsylvania, agricultural adoption of conservation and water quality protection practices are not yet common. Perhaps more importantly, the assessment also shows just how deficient Pennsylvania’s inspection resources are, as well as the enforcement of its environmental laws.

Forget about the Bay TMDL for a moment. Beck Creek has been identified by Pennsylvania as an impaired waterway since 1996 and Quittapahilla Creek has been subject to its own TMDL since 2001 – almost a decade before the Bay TMDL. This local TMDL was designed to protect the use of “Quittie Creek” for drinking water, recreation, and trout fishing.

The watershed association and local residents have a lot at stake in the efforts to restore Beck Creek, Quittapahilla Creek, and the other creeks, streams, and rivers that make their way to the Chesapeake Bay. Not only have these creeks given them water to drink, trout to fish, and a treasured place to cool off, but volunteers have toiled for decades to reduce pollution and restore their watersheds by installing projects and practices on their own time. Indeed, EPA noted that local residents were responsible for not only many of the agricultural “best management practices” that it found but also the Watershed Implementation Plan for the Quittapahilla Creek TMDL – a significant achievement for a local watershed group.

But EPA found that this plan was never approved and, worse yet, when the first Clean Water Act permit was eventually approved for discharge into the Quittie, no reference was made to the TMDL, the implementation plans, or the cap on loads needed to restore the locally impaired waterways. This must have raised the same question for local residents as many Chesapeake Bay advocates have been asking for years: what good is a TMDL if it is not given any effect?

When people want to understand why – despite all the talk, all the fundraising, all the taxpayer dollars invested – the Bay is still not clean, there is perhaps no better explanation to give than to point them to a localized assessment like the one for Beck Creek to show exactly what has gone wrong. And make no mistake, the problem is not confined to this creek. Rather, it represents a failure to enact the right policies and to enforce the policies we do have for waterways throughout the Bay watershed.

Whether you are concerned most about the Chesapeake Bay, Beck Creek, or the water running through your community or out of your tap, if you want to understand what has gone wrong, the first place to look is not necessarily to sources upstream, but to the policymakers in your state. Until the right suite of policies is in place, along with a fully equipped staff to enforce them, we will not be able to win the battle to restore our watersheds.

Climate Justice

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