On election day, the voters of Pennsylvania will not only cast their ballots to elect the next president and other public officials, they will also decide whether to authorize the state government to spend $400 million for upgrading the infrastructures for sewage treatment facilities and drinking water.
This referendum is not a part of any bailout plan, but will help upgrade many aging sewage treatment facilities that were built several decades ago. In many cases, these upgrades will help reduce nutrient (nitrogen phosphorus) discharges that degrade the quality of water in our rivers and streams, as well as the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania is under federal and state mandates under the Clean Water Act to cut down on total maximum daily load (TMDL) of nutrient discharges. As many as 184 sewage treatment facilities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, of which our own West Branch Susquehanna watershed is a major part, are faced with legal mandates, at a cost estimated to be over $1 billion. There are 123 sewage treatment facilities located in the Susquehanna watershed in Pennsylvania.
The proposed allocation of $400 million, however, will not be spent to upgrade the aging treatment plans only. The total cost for maintenance, upgrades and replacement cost of all of these plants in Pennsylvania will be over $20 billion. Of the proposed allocated amount, about $70 million will be spent for other programs that include cost share to farmers to install conservation practices, to expand technical supports by county conservation districts and to restore cuts to the Department of Agriculture in farm programs.
The major contributors to nutrient and sediment pollution to our local rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are agricultural run-off, sewage treatment facilities, urban run-off, septic tanks and air deposition. Pennsylvania contributes about 40 percent, 19 percent and 23 percent of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments, respectively, to the Chesapeake Bay.
Of Pennsylvania's contribution, agricultural run-off accounts for 48 percent, 59 percent and 73 percent of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments, respectively. It is obvious that nutrient discharges from agricultural run-off will have to be curtailed significantly if we are to achieve the set goals for reduction of nutrient discharges to our rivers and the Bay by more than 50 percent by the year 2010. Pennsylvania is far from achieving this target.
Results from a long-term research carried out by this author on agricultural impacts on water quality in Clinton County indicate a slight reduction in the nutrient pollution in streams in agriculturally intensive Sugar Valley and Nittany Valley. In addition, when compared to monitoring locations both upstream (Karthaus) and downstream (Lewisburg), Clinton County streams carry relatively low amount of sediment pollution. However, our streams carry disproportionately high amounts of both nitrogen and phosphorus. Data from published sources indicate the nitrogen discharges to the West Branch of Susquehanna river by the sewage treatment plant at Lock Haven is among one of the highest in central Pennsylvania. In other words, nutrient pollution from both agriculture and sewage treatment facility in our area are relatively higher as compared to other locations in Pennsylvania. We need to find ways to reduce the nutrient pollution to our streams.
Approval of the $400 million clean water referendum will be a good starting point in terms of setting up the right mindset to pay our fair share for clean water in our streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
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Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman is associate professor in the Department of Geology and Physics at Lock Haven University.