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Pennsylvania and New York: Failing the Chesapeake Bay?

WUSA9 Special Assignment Unit travels the length of the 444 mile Susquehanna River to investigate what farms and industry are doing to clean up their act.

KENT NARROWS, Md. — 350 miles from a slip of fishing head boats near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is the genesis of the waters they float upon. Folks on the Bay don't spend a lot of time thinking about New York, and vice versa.

But every drop of water in Cooperstown, New York's Otsego Lake will ultimately flow south and wind up in the Chesapeake Bay. So, everything that happens with the water in the Susquehanna River; from where it begins in Cooperstown and where it empties into the Bay in Havre de Grace, Maryland, is vitally important for the health of the water and the people who make their livelihoods upon it.  

In the fall of 2020, the Attorneys General of D.C., Virginia, Maryland and Delaware sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), alleging that the agency was not enforcing the standards New York and Pennsylvania had agreed to when they signed onto a multi-state clean water pact to ensure the health of the Chesapeake Bay. 

Concurrently, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation also filed suit against the EPA, making similar allegations. 

There has been a changeover in Presidential administrations and at the head of the EPA since the suit was filed, but as of yet, no resolution to the case.

However, officials at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation confirm to WUSA9 that settlement talks with the EPA are active and ongoing. EPA officials from Region 3, which includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, D.C. and Maryland, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. 

Building a Better Bay

The problem with water in the Chesapeake Bay, simply put, is pollution. All the water flowing down the Susquehanna, Potomac and other rivers that empty into the Bay, picks up toxins that drain into creeks, streams and tributaries. 

Cow and chicken manure, industrial waste and sewage are large contributing factors to that pollution. But, by far, the largest negative impact on clean water comes from nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizer products. These are used widely on farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed but also on personal lawns and community parks.   

High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus will deplete oxygen in a body of water. That leads to the death of aquatic water life, such as oysters, crabs and fish. 

"People move to Maryland because of the Bay. They like to fish in the Bay. Swim in the Bay. Commercial fishing is big. The crab industry. Striped bass, which is a favorite fish. So it drives the economy," said Beth McGee, Ph.D. of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, when asked why clean water is so critically important for the health of the Bay. 

I asked if our northern neighbors were holding up their end of the bargain to help keep the Bay clean.

"Pennsylvania, no. New York, maybe," McGee replied. 

That sent our WUSA9 Special Assignment Unit into motion. We traversed the entirety of the Susquehanna River; from Cooperstown, New York to the Conowingo Dam and the mouth of the River in Havre de Grace, Maryland.

The goal was to see with our own eyes what efforts are underway in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to improve the water quality flowing south into the Bay. 

Naturally, our queries began in Cooperstown, where the crystal clear waters of Otsego Lake funnel into a finger no wider than D.C.'s C & O canal. This is the beginning of the Susquehanna River; its most narrow and unblemished point. 

The EPA has established 'Total Maximum Daily Loads' or TMDLs that set acceptable pollution limits on the water that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. 

New York, according to state officials and Dr. McGee comes very close to meeting the TMDL, but is regularly, slightly over the limit.

Pennsylvania, however, regularly exceeds the TMDL by an average of 10 to 15 million pounds, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Farmers in Pennsylvania are taking the blame.

"Agriculture is the largest pollution source coming into the Bay. Pennsylvania has a huge farming industry. So the challenge is getting their 32,000 farms to do things that we need to do for clean water," says Dr. McGhee.

On The Farm

In Tioga County, New York we visited a beef cattle farm in the rural town of Owego. 85-year-old Marvin Moyer is a retired high school German teacher who took up farming in his golden years. With his spunky dog Bella, he invited us onto his Twin Brook farm property along with two women from the Tioga County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"I wanted to give you an example of conservation work that’s happening in the upper parts of the Susquehanna watershed," said Wendy Walsh with Tioga County Soil and Water. Wash also serves as a watershed coordinator with the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. "I wanted to show the impacts that we’re making and the benefits we’re providing to the Chesapeake Bay."

Walsh and her colleagues take clean water and environmental stewardship seriously. And it's hard to not take personally the allegations being leveled against her state of New York as a polluter of the Chesapeake Bay. 

Their office, among other local duties, works with farmers to incorporate more sustainable practices and match those farmers with available federal and state grants to help them pay for upgrades.

"So, this is a riparian forest buffer," says Danielle Singer, also with Tioga County. She's pointing to a recent addition on Moyer's farm. "Our buffer is naturally filtering nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that’s coming off the hillside and keeping it out of the stream."

The riparian buffer is just one component of several that have been incorporated on Moyer's farm.

"Built fences, the ones I could make," said Moyer. "Managed water systems,  made a water tank."

Fences on the farm properties are vital to keeping their herd of cattle away from potentially polluting the water sources, mainly with their manure. 

Moyer prides himself on incorporating a host of environmentally-friendly practices; staying away from harmful pesticides and keeping his land covered with grass, sprouts, or clover to prevent runoff. All his cows are purely grass-fed. He basically runs an organic farm, he says, but he doesn't have the official 'organic' label because he says he doesn't feel like jumping through all the government hoops to get it. 

He says he'd be willing to do more to "go green," but he could end up spending so much it could drive him right out of business.

"Exactly. And that’s some of the problems that farmers have," said Moyer.

Ice Cream, Chocolate and Butter

Downstream in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, it's just another day in a dairy dreamland. The Turkey Hill Ice Cream dairy and factory in Conestoga produces 90 million cartons of ice cream every year, according to Derek Frey, purchasing manager and 4th generation Turkey Hill executive. His great-grandfather founded the company in 1931.  

"The Maryland and Virginia Co-Op has 800 dairy farms in Pennsylvania," said Frey.  "All of our milk is coming from those farms. There are about 200 active farms. Any farm that supplies us with milk has signed on and agreed that they will participate in all the clean water regulations. That’s nutrient management, wastewater – so that’s a prerequisite just to do business with us."

Hershey's Chocolate and butter maker Land o’ Lakes Inc, both based in Pennsylvania, have similar programs as Turkey Hill, but on a smaller scale.

About 45 minutes away, we found one of those farms that supply milk to Turkey Hill. 

"We are working with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to support our dairy farmers and putting in conservation practices on their farms," says Janae Klingler with the MD & VA Milk Producer's Cooperative Association. (It's unclear why Pennsylvania isn't included in the name of the Co-Op, despite 800 participating farms being in the Commonwealth.)

The woman who owns and operates this farm does so with her high school-aged daughter and others. I pointedly asked if she cares about the Chesapeake Bay despite the Bay not touching her property or the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

"If you pollute your streams here, it eventually empties out into the Bay. So, you can affect the Bay," she said. "But honestly, your people out there with all the asphalt (city folks, I assumed) fertilizing their lawns 10 times heavier than it has to be, probably, you put them all together, they’ll do as much damage as we will I think." 

She has put into place a number of environmentally friendly measures on her farm.  

"This is a manure storage pit," said Klingler while pointing it out to me. "It will allow the farm to collect all the nutrients the cows are producing in their manure. And apply it to the lands at the best times of year to do that."

The manure pit prevents the cow waste from seeping into creeks on the property and eventually draining into the Susquehanna River. 

"Farmers want to do the right thing. And many times doing the right thing is not cheap," says Mauricio Rosales with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Multiply the number of these sustainable changes over the thousands of farms in New York and Pennsylvania and Klingler feels it's had a massive impact.

"I think it’s made a huge difference over the years," says Klingler. "The more and more people realize that these practices do make a difference and for what they can do for the quality of life, the profitability and the efficiency of the farms."

Overall, data shows that the health and water quality of the Chesapeake Bay is improving. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation tells WUSA9 that New York has submitted a mitigation plan to the court that would bring the state into compliance with the interstate clean water compact. 

Pennsylvania, officials insist, still has more work to do. 

Every day without a solution is another day that 10 to 15 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizers and other toxins flow into the Susquehanna River and downstream into the Chesapeake Bay.

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