April 22, 2022
To: Rep. Daryl Metcalf, chair House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee; and Rep. Greg Vitali, Democratic chair, House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee.
Dear: Chairman Metcalf and Chairman Vitali,
Thank you for giving our organization the opportunity to provide perspectives on the needs for reforming the way that Pennsylvania handles the routine maintenance of streams to prevent further damage.
This issue has been a longstanding priority of our organization, one that we have been advocating for with multiple administrations. Our farmers, particularly those in the Northern Tier, routinely express frustration at the lack of flexibility that current permitting provides in terms of removing barriers and debris that make flooding problems worse.
I’ve had multiple opportunities to tour our state’s Northern Tier and see first-hand the problems that residents in those communities are facing, and the topsoil that is being lost, because of the inability to perform routine stream maintenance. Floodwaters have destroyed numerous homes, businesses, roadways and bridges, and cut channels through productive farm fields.
Clearly, the current approach embraced by our Department of Environmental Protection is not working. Our state has experienced powerful storms and significant rain events. But we simply can’t put all of the blame on excessive rainfall; instead we need a wholistic approach that looks at other contributing factors, including debris clogging creeks and streams.
Doing nothing is, equally, not an option. Continuing to embrace the status quo is a disservice to the residents, businesses owners and township officials that are left to clean up the mess left by storms. I can’t even imagine the frustration that local officials must be experiencing knowing that preventative measures could have mitigated the damage. I can’t imagine what our farm families must face seeing their fields located near streams constantly erode, undercutting the conservation work they routinely perform on our farms. Our state must take a fresh approach to stream maintenance. That is why we are strongly supporting the legislative package that was recently introduced and referred to this committee. Hopefully, it sends a strong signal to the administration that they must come to the table with meaningful suggestions on how to do things differently. Their current approach is clearly not working.
The intent of the legislative package is to create a new approach towards stream maintenance, one that embraces a local control and oversight. In particular, we note that House Bill 2404 would allow local government organizations to apply for permits that allow for continuous maintenance of streams for a 10-year period and that House Bill 2405 would create a program that allows counties to work with their conservation districts on addressing stream debris that creates hazards. We believe that county governments should play a leading role in stream cleaning activities.
Because our state has such varying topography, stream problems in one area might not be a significant concern in the other. By giving counties the ability to apply for a long-term maintenance program, it gives flexibility for counties that are plagued by significant problems, such as our state’s Northern Tier. The goal of such an approach should be a commitment to the long-term stabilization of our stream banks and channels. By empowering local communities to take control of the situation, and providing them the sound environmental and engineering practices, we can create solutions that result in long-term changes, not a temporary fix. Programs like Bradford County’s Stream Pilot Program embraces that approach and is a model that should be replicated across the Commonwealth.
Stream maintenance is obviously a costly endeavor, although in the long term those upfront costs obviously are far less than the rebuilding of infrastructure lost to powerful storms. Our organization can support the creation of a dedicated funding stream for these fixes—the royalties that Pennsylvania receives from gas leasing that occurs under all Commonwealth-owned waterways. That royalty income should be redirected from current sources and diverted directly into helping communities prevent future devastation.
The last time that our organization was asked to testify in front of this committee, we discussed the need for agriculture conservation funding to help protect local waterways. It’s our belief that helping farmers with conservation efforts is in the best long-term interest of the state. However, any improvement that is being made along our waterways is being undercut by the inability to prevent the further loss of stream banks and topsoil. Soil is soil. It does not matter if it washes down from a farm field, or the bank of a stream. That soil and sediment makes its way downstream, causing further problems. As we look to cleanup our watersheds, particularly those in the Susquehanna River, its imperative that we equally address the problems being caused by stream debris.
It’s our hope that this committee will quickly move on the stream maintenance package that was recently introduced, and that the Department of Environmental Protection will come to the table in a meaningful way to support fundamental changes in the way that stream maintenance is handled in this state. Ultimately, we are hopeful that local communities will be empowered with the tools and resources they need to properly address this problem.
Director of State Government Affairs for Pennsylvania Farm Bureau