PA funds delivers large wins for Lake Erie cleanup, recreation

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Historic investments in long-underfunded conservation programs included in Pennsylvania’s new $43 billion budget could go a long way toward benefiting our region’s greatest asset: our water.

Lake Erie, Presque Isle Bay and their tributaries provide water for drinking, manufacturing and agriculture. Our watershed also supports a vibrant $1.2 billion tourism industry that attracts people from around the world. Erie County’s recreational fisheries alone have an estimated annual economic impact of over $40 million.

However, these essential resources face challenges that must be addressed in order to maintain their value well into the future. Lake Erie, Presque Isle Bay and nearly 50% of the river miles in our catchment area are “impaired” or too polluted to support drinking water, recreation and fish consumption. Climate change, invasive species and pollution from runoff, plastic and fossil fuel waste, and historic industrial activities are additional challenges to water quality.

In response to these threats, in 2020 PennFuture – along with 12 partner environmental organizations and a team of scientific reviewers – launched the Our Water, Our Future campaign. Measures to protect and restore water quality.

If this year’s bipartisan budget agreement is any indication, our elected state officials seem to get the message. The new spending plan includes over $880 million for clean water and the environment. The deal reverses a trend that has seen year-on-year cuts in funding for programs and government agencies designed to protect our environmental resources.

For example, the Growing Greener program, first established under Governor Tom Ridge in 1999, was once a lifeline for projects to protect and promote clean water. Despite the program’s continued benefits, funding has fallen from an average of $200 million per year in the mid-2000s to just $18 million last year. A new $156 million State Parks and Outdoor Recreation program will replace Growing Greener.

How big is this new budget for the Lake Erie watershed?

Previous investments by Growing Greener in Erie County totaled nearly $16 million for water quality improvement projects in local and state parks. More than half of that investment went into Presque Isle and Erie Bluffs state parks. Due to the increased pressure on our state parks during the COVID-19 pandemic, Erie is expected to receive additional support from the State Parks and Outdoor Recreation program.

Another $320 million will be used to fund capital projects that protect communities from severe flooding, improve wastewater treatment facilities, and upgrade stormwater infrastructure. This federal funding could allow our local communities to make great strides in preserving and improving vital water systems when leveraged with federal funding for incentives and infrastructure legislation.

A significant win of the Our Water, Our Future campaign is the creation of Pennsylvania’s first fund dedicated solely to water quality: the Clean Streams Fund. New programs in this $220 million fund target two of our biggest sources of water pollution: runoff from agriculture and urban buildings.

The Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program will use Conservation Districts to distribute $154 million to farmers for projects protecting our waterways. Each district receives funds based on the number of affected agricultural stream kilometers, farms, farmland, livestock and poultry.

Swimmers cool off in Lake Erie at Presque Isle State Park Beach 8 in Millcreek Township on July 20, 2022.

A new municipal stormwater relief program will support local communities with heavily built-up areas. Nearly 1,000 urban communities in Pennsylvania, including 11 in Erie County, that due to their population densities need to take additional measures to reduce the impact of their urban runoff could benefit from this program.

Other budget allocations will increase funding for state environmental agencies, protect threatened natural habitats, conserve farmland and enable greater energy efficiency.

While the benefits of these historic investments will last for years, let’s not overlook the fact that one-off pandemic relief has made this possible. When those funds run dry, we need to make our voices heard again to support Pennsylvania’s natural resources.

In this file photo, a steelhead swims upstream by jumping up a fish ladder on Trout Run in Fairview Township on October 11, 2019.

Several of the environmental programs in the budget guarantee funding for the Lake Erie watershed, but many will only be available through competitive bids. That’s why we call on local and regional leaders to implement priority strategies outlined in the Our Water, Our Future campaign to build capacity, secure funding and improve water quality.

It’s not everyday, especially in places like Pennsylvania, that spending plans include such forward-looking funds for environmental priorities. However, for local communities like those in Erie County, work needs to start to ensure we get our fair share.

Jenny Tompkins is the clean water campaign manager at PennFuture, a statewide environmental organization with five offices across Pennsylvania.