As Chair of the Pennsylvania Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission — which is a tri-state legislative assembly representing Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia — I have been proud to work towards improving the health of our state’s 85,000 miles of rivers and streams for the better part of a decade. Clean water is vital to the health of our local communities and our economy. We need clean water upstream to have healthy, vibrant communities downstream. By working to restore our waterways, we can reduce the cost of drinking water treatment and invest in our top two industries, tourism and agriculture, by helping farms improve soil health and increasing recreational opportunities.

As stewards of the land, Pa. farmers know that protecting the environment and natural resources is vital to the success and future of our farms and communities. Farmers in my home region of Central Pa., and all across the Commonwealth, have been leaders in implementing practices to improve water quality — but we know there is more to be done. Many of the investments needed are too costly for many farm owners to afford on their own, especially in a difficult farm economy, with many still reeling from Covid-related supply chain disruptions, a farm labor shortage, rising input costs and volatile commodity prices.

As a result, I have recently sponsored Senate Bill 465, which would create a new Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program (ACAP), providing funding and technical support to expand on-farm conservation practices throughout Pennsylvania, using a formula that benefits all parts of the state while directing additional resources to areas with the greatest opportunity for improvements in water quality. This legislation has already garnered support from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau (PFB), the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and other environmental organizations working to promote and protect Pennsylvania’s waterways.

Unfortunately, almost one-third of our Commonwealth’s streams do not meet standards for drinking, fishing or recreation, and agriculture remains one of the largest sources of impairment. If implemented, SB 465 would help meet these challenges.

The proposed ACAP would work similarly to the State Conservation Commission’s Dirt and Gravel Roads program. Funding would be distributed to county conservation districts throughout the Commonwealth. Conservation districts would then partner with farmers and landowners in their communities to complete the conservation projects that make the most sense locally. Fundamentally it is a bill that empowers local leaders, farmers and conservation experts to make the changes that they are best equipped to handle.

The ACAP puts decision making in the hands of the people who know best which conservation practices would have the most benefit in their communities: local farmers and conservation leaders. This locally focused approach will help ensure that our state’s investments in our waterways will maximize the viability of working lands for the future, in the most cost-effective manner possible — a truly “conservative” approach.

The ACAP puts decision making in the hands of the people who know best which conservation practices would have the most benefit in their communities: local farmers and conservation leaders.

The bill allows the program’s funding to come from multiple sources, including federal and state dollars and private investment. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (aka Federal Covid Stimulus) has provided almost $7 billion to Pennsylvania for several dedicated uses, one of which is water infrastructure. We propose that $250 million of these funds, a mere fraction of one percent of our state’s allocation, go toward establishing a new Clean Streams Fund to support the ACAP and other proven methods of reducing pollution in our local streams.

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For every one dollar invested in local water quality, $1.60 is returned to the community through locally-hired labor and locally-sourced materials, according to our state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Other studies show even greater returns for taxpayers. For every mile of stream improved, over $100,000 will be generated in the local economy from improved fishing and boating opportunities.

We are at a critical juncture in cleaning up Pa. waterways, and we are making progress. Now is the time for our state to enact legislation that will provide a roadmap for meeting those goals, improving the health of our ecosystems and benefiting Pa. families and our economy for years to come.

This article was written by PA State Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming County), Chair of the Pa. Pennsylvania Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. For more state-related news and information visit Senator Yaw’s website at @SenatorGeneYaw

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