Local Watershed Groups Face Funding Challenges

Cleaning up abandoned mine lands and acid mine drainage into waterways is estimated to cost $15 billion in Pennsylvania. With the prospect of a tax on natural gas drilling seeming slim, funding for clean-up projects may soon be in peril. In the second part of our series on watershed groups in Pennsylvania, the Allegheny Front's Ryan Delaney looks at the future of revenue for these organizations. Deborah Weisberg contributed to this report.

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DELANEY: Walking into an abandoned mine reclamation project in South Fayette Township Amy Smith stops to check the progress of a series of beaver dams on Fishing Run, an Ohio River tributary.

SMITH: I noticed it for the first time last winter and it was just one small dam and they were in the beginning stage of creating this dam. You can see where theyíre chewing. Thereís fresh wood there.

DELANEY: Although beaver dams help trap sediment and pollution, thereís a lot less of it these days on Fishing Run because of a project Smith managed further up the road. Sheís a volunteer with the South Fayette Conservation Group. At a hilltop at the end of the road, she points to a green valley that once was an abandoned mine.

SMITH: If you look to your right into that hillside is where a mine portal used to be. And if you look over here on the left, thatís where the other one used to be. The stream was coming down and veered right and right into the mine portal.

DELANEY: Smithís group sealed the mine entrances, moved the stream back to its original channel, got rid of rusted mining equipment and re-graded the land. They also planted 4,000 trees to stabilize its banks.

Growing Greener -- Pennsylvania's fund for environmental projects -- provided over $300,000, but requires a 50% match and doesn't allow for much organizational overhead.

Growing Greener has been instrumental in funding watershed projects since the $1 billion fund was created a decade ago. The program was then recharged with a $650 million, 5 year bond called Growing Greener II, but in its last year, the fund is dwindling fast.

A coalition of two dozen environmental groups called the Renew Growing Greener Coalition is lobbying for a new, dedicated source of funding. They were hoping to see a severance tax on gas drilling turn into a major part of Growing Greener III, but the prospect of a tax is on long-term hold.

Executive Director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds John Dawes hopes Governor-Elect Tom Corbett will instead enact an extraction fee...something Corbett has signaled is a possibility. It's essentially the same thing -- charging gas companies to drill -- but with a name easier for some politicians to stomach.

Luckily watershed groups won't wither right away if Growing Greener runs out. The Renewed Abandoned Mine Lands Fund will give Pennsylvania a billion and a half dollars over the next 14 years for projects and Dawes says despite the down economy, donations to his organization have increased.

DAWES: Thereís also a network of community foundations throughout the state and they house donor advised funds, so I would certainly recommend any watershed associations to be diligent about pursuing those funds which are designated for quality of life or improving the community.

DELANEY: The coalition also wants growing greener to allow a larger portion of grants to pay for an organization's staff and operating expenses, not just money for projects.

Without funds for administrative costs, volunteers are doing everything from writing grant proposals to managing funds. Scott Leff of the Bayer Center for Non-Profit Management at Robert Morris University says this scenario has created a crisis for watershed groups everywhere.

LEFF: Volunteers get burned out, especially these groups. They're very passionate people. They care about what they're doing.They are running and managing projects themselves and by-and-large, they have full time jobs and so it becomes very demanding. Because they are so passionate they keep doing it. But ultimately that's not a sustainable model.

DELANEY: The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds has teamed up with the Bayer Center to help organizations like the South Fayette group chart viable futures. The pilot project just finished its first phase and will begin expanding the project after the new year. South Fayetteís founder Cindy Cox says they were eager to sign on.

COX: We realized that if we didnít start evaluating where we were now, it could be detrimental in the long run to our organizationÖ and we were definitely not willing to let that happen.

DELANEY: Leff says the groups in the pilot program still have some challenges ahead. And he hopes many of the strategies worked on in the first phase can be applied to groups across the state.

LEFF: Helping them understand how to utilize staff, board interaction. What roles are. Looking at some marketing ideas for them. And, again, looking at things less as a full blown strategic plan but strategic elements and really dealing more with sort of nuts and bolts kind of administrative issues.

DELANEY: Leff says an important key is building a paid membership base - though it's tough, since many watershed groups work in rural areas and would have a hard time motivating people beyond their small communities. He says there may be fewer groups a decade from now, since it will be hard for all of them to find enough funding.

John Dawes says it's critical that these groups stay active.

DAWES: The uniqueness of having people organized around a watershed or hydrologic unit code, being watchdogs and interested in sustainability of water resources in that watershed is very unique to our state. And I think itís more necessary now than ever before because of the impetus of this tremendous 21st century industry called Marcellus Shale gas drilling. I mean itís here. And itís a big deal.

DELANEY: Dawes says he doesn't even want to think about the future if Going Greener money dries up. If the natural gas extraction fee doesn't materialize either, then he suggests a bottle fee, or maybe a tax on coal mining. Another bond could be a possibility too, but the coalition wants to see a sustainable, long term, funding source be dedicated to environmental projects.

For the Allegheny Front, Iím Ryan Delaney.