Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dairy Farmers, Cattle Operations and Poultry Farms Grab Your Cost Share Money Before It’s Gone

The Commonwealth of Virginia has earmarked $3.4 million for new stream protection practices under the Virginia Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) and the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act. This week the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has awarded $690,120 or 20% of that money to the soil and water conservation districts in Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties to be used to provide technical assistance and cost share money for new livestock exclusion and new stream protection practices being implemented within the next four months. If you are interested in learning more about these funds and conservation practices contact Nicole Ethier,Conservation Specialist, Prince William Soil & Water Conservation District, (703)594-3621 or follow the links on the county names to their websites.

Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded. As a result, US EPA has taken control of the situation and has developed a new federally mandated total maximum daily load (TMDL) to restore the local waters. The TMDL allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time.

The final version of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan to approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spells out how Virginia will attain the TMDL goals. There are local TMDLs as well as state TMDLs. As a show of good faith, the Governor of Virginia included $36.4 million new dollars in the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund in his 2011 budget amendments. This $3.4 million money earmarked for new stream exclusion is money already available that is being "reprogramed."

Last fall the US Department of Agriculture released a draft of a report evaluating conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The USDA report stated 81% of farms lacked comprehensive nutrient management plans and practices. The report found that on over 2 million acres of cropland within the six state Chesapeake Bay watershed, that conservation practices are not being used at all. According to the current version of the EPA watershed model (to be revised in 2011), cropland accounts for 25% of sediment in the bay, 32% of the nitrogen and 27.5% of the phosphorus while accounting for only 10% of the Chesapeake Bay watershed acreage.

For agricultural operations in Virginia (and other states) the revised WIP requires the implementation of resource management plans on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest riparian buffers between cropland and perennial surface waters; stream exclusion of livestock; and implemented nutrient management plans. Though funds are limited, the Commonwealth will provide cost-share funding to implement these best practices through the soil and water conservation districts. The WIP calls for farms to implement "resource management plans" to reduce pollution but does not mandate what those plans should include and requires them only if adequate funding is available through the cost share programs. However, the TMDL has to be met and the best money spent could be to implement agricultural nutrient management plans. Thus, the first money available for compliance with the Virginia WIP is for the cost share program at the soil and water conservation districts.

Riparian buffers, nutrient management plans and stream exclusion have been shown to be very effective in reducing nutrient pollution. Researchers at Virginia Tech found that orchard grass filter strip 30 feet wide remove 84% of the sediment and soluble solids from surface runoff. Recent studies northeast of Richmond, VA demonstrated that forested riparian buffers could reduce concentrations of nitrate-nitrogen in runoff from croplands by 48%. While studies performed on the Maryland shore found that riparian buffers removed between 89% and 95% of the nitrogen from field run off. While riparian areas can be important sinks for phosphors, they are generally less effective in removing phosphorus than either sediment of nitrogen. (Parsons 1994, Cooper and Gilliam 1987).

In addition, protecting livestock from pollutant-contaminated waterways also leads to improved animal health, enabling local farmers to produce higher quality meats and poultry. According to the Department of Natural Resources, farmers report higher yields from animals grazing on lands where streams are protected from livestock “The best management practices promoted by conservation districts improve public and animal health and build(a) wealth,” said Jim Christian, Chairman of the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District. “Cost-share programs, tax credits, and contributions by participating landowners create a lucrative return on investment.” Many animal farms can operate well beyond the baseline level and will be able to sell nutrient credits under the nutrient exchange program to municipalities and others who are above the discharge baseline. Now is the time to call your soil and water conservation district and be proactive.

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