DEP reboots its clean stream strategy with focus on enforcement and data

A new strategy unveiled by the state Department of Environmental Protection places an emphasis on enforcement and data collection to keep the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay free of pollutants.

DEP Secretary John Quigley told members of the media recently the renewed efforts are in response to the state’s failure to meet clean water goals set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Continuing to fail to meet federal requirements could lead to “stark and severe” consequences, according to Quigley.

“EPA is considering increasing their involvement,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen.”

Part of the strategy will require partnering with county conservation districts throughout the state to help foster what Quigley described as a “culture of compliance” among farmers. The state DEP for too long has focused on education rather than inspection, according to Quigley.

Traditionally, conservation districts have played a similar role, educating local farmers about what is required of them for the preservation of clean streams rather than inspecting their operations, according to Mark Davidson, manager of the Lycoming County conservation district.

Davidson is worried that more aggressive enforcement efforts could damage the relationship the conservation district has had with farmers.

“We’ve always been kind of a buffer between the farmers and the regulatory folks,” Davidson said. “They looked to us to help in a lot of cases, and I’m afraid you’re going to see that with us being put in a more regulatory position, that we won’t have as good a reputation with the agriculture community, or enjoy the confidence they’ve had with working with us in the past. It’s a trust issue.”

The DEP will be particularly focused on whether farms have required plans in place to manage erosion and sedimentation. However, farmers without the plans will not be immediately penalized, Quigley said.

“That starts a clock,” he added. “We will be able to point farmers in the direction of available resources to get a plan written in a reasonable amount of time.” The process, according to Quigley, will be “reasonable” and “transparent.”

More inspections will provide the DEP better data about who is complying with regulations and who is not.

“We need to document what is going on on the ground,” Quigley said. “These partnerships will help us go out and get this data that has long been missing.”

He hopes that increased data collection will disprove estimates that roughly 70 percent of famers in the state do not have erosion and sedimentation management plans. Farmers in compliance should be recognized for their efforts, Quigley said.

Because the conservation district here rarely has served in a regulatory capacity, it is not clear how many farms out of the 1,200 in Lycoming County are in compliance with state and federal regulations, according to Tim Heyler, agricultural conservation technician with the district.

“But in general we probably don’t have a huge problem, compared to other counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Heyler said.