A bill expected to pass this week in the legislature would gut protections for Pennsylvania's cleanest streams, critics say.
The proposal, which would remove a requirement that developers leave a 150-foot forested buffer along some streams, has drawn the opposition of environmental groups, land conservancies, and wildlife groups such as Trout Unlimited.
It is backed by the Pennsylvania Builders Association and officials in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, who say that the requirement is arbitrary and that they need flexibility.
Already passed by the House and a Senate committee, the bill could come up Tuesday for a vote by the full Senate. Then, because it has been amended, the bill would need to return to the House on Wednesday, the last day of the session.
Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), who voted against the bill in committee, said he felt certain that it would pass.
The issue, he said, has turned into a debate between legislators in the Northeast, who want development, and those in the Southeast, who want to preserve stream protections for which they fought hard.
"We don't want any state laws or regulations that would set us back," Dinniman said.
But to Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican who represents six counties in the Northeast, "it's a landowner property-rights bill."
The current rule, created by the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 after years of advocacy by environmental groups, required the buffers on all streams designated as "high quality" or "exceptional value."
In this region, that includes smaller headwaters streams such as Bucks County's Tinicum, Cuttalossa, and Aquetong Creeks, plus Chester County's French, Pickering, and Valley Creeks.
The proposed legislation would remove the buffer requirement in many cases, or allow for "alternatives that are equivalent."
Those don't exist, said Bernard Sweeney. As head of the nonprofit Stroud Water Research Center in southern Chester County, he has studied stream ecosystems for decades.
Eliminating buffers "is just not consistent with the science," he said. "The best of the best streams are now going to become more vulnerable."
In a recent paper reviewing 238 studies, he and a colleague concluded that a 100-foot forested buffer was the minimum needed to protect the physical, chemical, and biologic integrity of a stream.
"If you really want to disturb and clobber a stream ecosystem, remove the trees from its bank," Sweeney said. "If you want to restore it, put the trees back on the banks."
Trees shade a stream, keeping the water cool and preventing the growth of sun-loving algae, which is not a food source for stream organisms, he said. Buffers absorb pollutants and storm water, helping prevent floods.
"Around the office, we're calling this bill the subdivision flooding bill," said Cindy Adams Dunn, CEO of the state environmental group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.
The bill also would allow a replacement buffer "as close as feasible" to a project.
"But what does that constitute?" said Brooks Mountcastle, eastern Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action. "What if it's 18 miles downriver?"
Whatever the distance, the replacement idea is insufficient, said Katy Dunlap, eastern water project director for Trout Unlimited. "Buffers provide site-specific benefits."
The bill's opponents say that every waiver sought has been granted - proof that the current requirement works.
But its supporters say that when it appears a waiver will be denied, developers often withdraw the application rather than waste time and money.
Brian Oram, a geologist and soil scientist in northeastern Pennsylvania, said he has known of projects that waited a year and a half for waivers. One developer had to spend $100,000 in additional engineering fees.
"The waiver process doesn't work," he said.
If so, asked John Theilacker, associate director of the Municipal Assistance Program of the Brandywine Conservancy, which has planted 25,000 trees in the Chester County watershed, is this bill the way to fix it?
"It seems so heavy-handed," he said. "Why not form a committee of conservationists and developers and explore . . . is there a better way?"
Baker said that the "one-size-fits-all" regulation was too challenging and that site-specific plans could take soils, topography, and other vegetation into account.
One project was scuttled, Oram said, when a developer owned only the outside 25 feet of what would be the 150-foot buffer. The first 125 feet next to the stream included a paved road and had a different owner.
While exceptional-value and high-quality streams constitute about 30 percent of the state's stream miles, in rural northeastern Pennsylvania the ratio can reach 90 percent or more.
If the 150-foot rule were applied to all Wayne County's best streams, it would mean 70,000 acres of Wayne County - about 14 percent of the total - could not be developed, said Brian Smith, chair of the Wayne County commissioners.
The area "isn't suffering from deforestation," he said, "it's suffering from reforestation." Farmers are quitting. Youths are leaving. And costs to comply with the buffer requirements are driving business elsewhere. "We absolutely need development."
All or part of these streams is designated as "high quality" or "exceptional value"
by the state.
White Clay Creek.
East Branch, Brandywine Creek.
West Branch, Brandywine Creek.
SOURCE: Pa. Department
of Environmental Protection