Can water quality protection go too far?

By Peter Becker

Managing Editor

PALMYRA TWP. (Pike)- Lake Wallenpaupack Watershed Management District (LWWMD), a historic protector of the water quality of the lake, is seeking how to respond to a proposed and controversial state policy concerning on-lot septic system nitrates.

County and municipal leaders, small business people, real estate and builders associations have protested against the proposal, stressing that the nitrate levels in the Wayne and Pike County watersheds are very low; the proposal is both unneeded and punishing to the local economy should costly mitigation restrictions be placed on construction and lot development.

The aim of DEP, however, is said to be to further protect water bodies rated as High Quality or Exceptional Value. In view of this, should the LWWMD take a stand opposing the measure?

A lengthy discussion followed around the tables at the District board meeting, April 17th.

Wayne County Commissioner Chairman Brian Smith, who represents Wayne County on the LWWMD, asked the board to issue a letter to DEP and other state officials and back up their concern with science.

While stressing the anticipated damaging effect on economic development and the tax base as many building lots plummet in value, Smith noted the irony that studies show there is not a nitrate problem in Wayne and Pike in need of fixing. He and others on the board said there must be evidence from over 30 years of water quality sampling from Lake Wallenpaupack, conducted by LWWMD, to support this conclusion.

District Administrator Nick Spinelli cautioned that it may not be in the purview of the Watershed District to send a letter in opposition. He stated that their mission "is to protect water quality regardless of the method." He said this was regardless of our personal opinions of the proposal.

"It could come back and bite us," warned Board member Fred Schoenagle Jr., speaking of the public perception. Member Carol Gwozdziewycz agreed. She said the public could question why the District would oppose protecting water quality.

Keith Williams, board member suggested it could be opposed because the policy is not based on science- that the evidence does not support that the proposed extra layer of protection is required here.

Gwozdziewycz suggested that the proposal may arise from nitrate issues that exist in the Susquehanna River Basin.

Trish Attardo, who represents Monroe County on the board, advised that it may be better to advise DEP how to revise the policy, rather then simply stating opposition. She said that nitrates are an issue in some parts of Monroe County.

By taking a stand, the LWWMD has an opportunity to educate the public. William said that while the fact the public might expect the District to defend the measure, by not supporting it may serve to shed light on the matter.

Eric Ehrhardt, who represents Palmyra Twp. (Pike) on the board, commented that the proposal does not give incentive to people in other areas of Pennsylvania to improve their watersheds, given the restrictions on development that would come if the waters were upgraded to HQ or EV status.

The board agreed to get a cost quote from their aquatics biology consultant Edward Molesky (Aqua Link) to analyze the monitoring data to show the nitrate status in Wallenpaupack. If the numbers support their expectation, a draft letter could be prepared for the District board to decide to send before the comment period runs out. A special board meeting was suggested.

At the time of the meeting, the deadline was April 30 and fast approaching. Since then, DEP has announced that the comment period will be extended to June 3rd.

LWWMD board meets on the third Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the PPL Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center. The office may be reached at 226-3865.

[Editor's note: A related story appeasr on page 11.]