Guest Opinion: ARPA funds offer Pa. a chance to improve water quality, mitigate flooding
The world’s leading climate scientists in early August warned us that our climate is at a tipping point, and that we must act immediately to avoid the very worst impacts of climate change. Less than a month later, the remnants of Hurricane Ida inundated Pennsylvania with heavy rainfall and flooding, with over 7 inches of rain falling in parts of York County, for example.
Looking ahead, we know that Pennsylvania will experience more intense storms and flooding wreaking havoc on our waterways and communities. Fortunately, Pennsylvania has $5 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, that the legislature could invest a portion to protect the health of our waterways and mitigate against flooding.
In March, ARPA was signed into law to provide financial resources to state and local governments recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ARPA funds can be spent on clean water infrastructure, signaling the vital role clean water plays to public health and economic recovery.
Pennsylvania received $7 billion in federal funding from ARPA, and instead of spending that money to improve the lives of everyday Pennsylvanians, our lawmakers decided to stow away $5 billion of those funds for a rainy day. It is imperative that the state does not pass up this opportunity to invest a portion in clean water infrastructure and flood protection. We all benefit from access to clean water, and it’s our shared responsibility to ensure it’s available for current and future generations.
More precipitation means more water pollution finding its way into our waterways. Polluted water impacts can be seen locally coming from paved surfaces, industries, farms, and lawns. In York County, around 25% of streams are impaired while 65% of all streams in Lancaster County are impaired from agriculture. In addition, over one-third of all the rivers and streams in Pennsylvania are degraded enough to be designated by the state as impaired.
Simply put, when you invest in clean water and flood mitigation, an enormous return on investment follows. To that end, investments in clean water infrastructure benefit the economy and create demand for local jobs. Practices such as proper manure storage, excluding livestock from streams, streamside or urban trees, rain gardens, and infiltration trenches under paved surfaces all require labor to plan, install, and maintain, which in turn supports jobs in construction, landscaping, nurseries, concrete services, and more.
Investments in clean water infrastructure benefit Pennsylvania’s farmers. Farmers are stewards of the land and what they do — or don’t do — today will impact farming for future generations. Keeping cows out of streams improves herd health. Practices to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health will help keep important topsoil on farms. These types of practices can ultimately help farmers reduce input costs.
Investments in clean water infrastructure benefit our towns and communities. Stormwater runoff from developed surfaces is the third leading cause of stream pollution in the commonwealth. By installing practices that manage stormwater, our towns can reduce street and river flooding and create green spaces for residents to enjoy.
Clean water is a critical component of Pennsylvania’s thriving recreation economy, which is the sixth largest in the country and produced $13 billion in revenue, according to 2019 figures. It’s also a critical investment in our farmers, one of Pennsylvania’s top economic sectors accounting for approximately $83.8 billion in direct economic output and over 280,500 jobs.
Properly funding clean water initiatives isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Fortunately, there are two bills in the Senate that would make such investments using ARPA funds.
Legislation to reinvigorate the Growing Greener Program would provide critical support to community-driven work that improves and protects our cities and towns. Since 1999, Growing Greener has been a lifeline to conservation and clean water projects across the state. These investments bring lasting benefits to communities across Pennsylvania from clean water to open spaces to recreational pursuits for Pennsylvanians and tourists alike.
The proposed Clean Streams Fund would create dedicated funding devoted solely to addressing Pennsylvania’s top sources of water pollution. This new fund would establish new programs and give a boost to existing programs. It would create the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program to help farmers and the Municipal Stormwater Assistance Program to provide funding to local governments to manage stormwater.
With the devastating effects of Ida fresh in our memory and a boost of $7 billion in federal funding, the legislature can no longer continue to push off its responsibility for the public health and economic benefits received from healthy rivers and streams.
Now is the time for our elected officials to uphold our right to clean water and good health, as well as to strongly support Pennsylvania’s recreation businesses and farmers.
Renee Reber is a campaign manager for PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy organization with five offices across Pennsylvania.