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December 03, 2016
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It’s a balancing act

Under regulations of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, streams and rivers (and their watersheds) require “special protection” when they are so clean that they carry the official label of high quality (HQ) or exceptional value (EV) waters. Wayne County (hardly one of the state’s largest counties) has so many HQ and EV waters that 425,474 acres—more acres than any other PA county—are designated as needing special protection. This is 93% of the county’s land mass. Pike County ranks fifth with 241,442 acres so protected.

(For background, PA’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) determines HQ and EV classifications based on chemical and biological testing of waters, presence of aquatic life and more.)

Enter DEP officials who are proposing a policy change governing construction of on-lot sewage systems in HQ and EV watersheds. Wayne County and Pike County officials are pushing back against this change because they believe it may so limit land use development as to jeopardize even moderate growth in these rural counties, potentially condemning them to economic stagnation.

Under the proposed new policy, DEP would look at the following when determining whether to approve new sewage planning modules at construction sites: (a) the density of the on-lot sewage system, (b) the setback distance from surface water, e.g. streams and rivers, and (c) whether there is a forested or other vegetative buffer protecting surface waters. If these conditions did not provide enough protection of nearby waters, then builders and landowners could turn to other more technical solutions such as (d) adding a water-permeable barrier, i.e. an excavated trench 50 feet from the absorption area and two feet below the seasonal low water table, filled with a carbon source, sawdust or wood chips (add an estimated $5,000 to $15,000 to the construction project) and/or (e) adding denitrifying, advanced treatment technology (add $3,000 to $7,000).

This is what local officials fear—let’s say a hypothetical landowner wants to build a house, or perhaps small workshop that will employ several people. S/he owns land both in Wayne County and in Montgomery County, which has very few HQ and EV waters. In Wayne County, the project’s construction cost may rise more than $20,000 (depending on land conditions and water proximity). Guess where the landowner is going to build his/her home or workshop business? Furthermore, some longtime landowners may find that they own non-approvable lots under the new policy, rendering them impossible for development.

It’s not that local officials don’t want clean water; they do. In Wayne County, they point to existing excellent water quality as evidence that current regulations are working just fine. A permitting system called the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) dating back to 1972’s federal Clean Water Act, plus countless “best management practices” added over the last 40 years appear to be doing the job. Thus, officials argue, there is no demonstrated need for the policy change. Further, they believe it would penalize the county for its good stewardship of water quality in the past.

Clean creeks, streams and rivers are important to our region, bringing thousands of recreational users to support our local economies. Downstream, the Delaware Watershed supplies drinking water to five percent of the nation’s population—over 15 million people. So there is strong incentive to protect our HQ and EV waters as a vital natural resource. Vigilance will be required, of course, but common sense, too.

We believe that balance is needed. On one hand, it will be important to faithfully conserve and protect the water quality in our streams, while on the other hand a policy with the potential to shut down local economic development is too heavy-handed in a location where (so far) there is no evidence that such steps (so far) are needed.