Thursday, October 31, 2013

Changes at the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts

During the past legislative session the water programs of the state were all consolidated and transferred to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by HB 2048 and SB 1279. Though there have been no changes in statutes or regulatory oversight, this was still a really big move to consolidate management and oversight of all water programs within the state under DEQ control. DEQ now manages; the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas, erosion and sediment control, point source and non-point source contamination, and the execution of all parts of the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) Virginia developed to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates. With these changes the 47 Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts were moved under the oversight of the DEQ.

On Monday there was a well-attended Public Meeting in Culpeper to discuss these changes and allow the various community members and stakeholders to express their concerns and support. The soil and water conservation districts (Districts) were born out of the dust bowl days to prevent erosion and preserve the soil and manage the network of small damns that were built throughout the nation. Over the years the mission evolved. Today the districts provide technical assistance to help farmers and landowners adopt conservation management practices. The districts also promote and encourage voluntary adoption of the approved storm water management, water protection strategies and soil protection and conservation measures that are known as “Best Management Practices” or BMPs. Part of the promotion of the adoption of the BMPs are various financial incentives known collectively as cost share programs that help farmers and landowners pay for the necessary improvements. Finally the Districts run a series of educational programs for both children and adults to further understanding of our watersheds, water quality and the seemingly small actions that can provide big solutions to our water quality if they are adopted by most people.

According to Neil Zahradka of the DEQ Office of Land Application Programs, the consolidation of the Districts under DEQ is intended to improved oversight and implementation of Virginia’s WIP. The WIP is the plan created to comply with the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment mandated by the EPA to Virginia and the other Chesapeake Bay Watershed states and the District of the Columbia. EPA has legal authority to regulate only point source releases of contaminants and pollutants- wastewater, industrial, and municipal separate stormwater systems (MS4), and concentrated animal feeding operation permits as well as set total maximum daily load (TMDL) of those contaminants in rivers and surface waters. Under threat of EPA reducing these point source release levels to incredibly expensive to achieve or perhaps unachievable levels, Virginia produced a WIP that ultimately satisfied EPA. Though how these activities will be paid for is still unknown. EPA has never had a budget for implementation of these programs that are estimated to cost billions of dollars.

The revised and accepted WIP requires that Virginia’s Stormwater Management Regulations require redevelopments to meet reductions in nutrient and sediment loads, and to prevent nutrient pollution and sediment load increases from new development. In the future all new development appears to be required to be almost sediment and nutrient pollution free or to “pay” for their developments by reducing runoff from existing developments. The Commonwealth will reduce pollution from stormwater running off urban streets and parking lots by mandating reductions in state permits for large city stormwater systems. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stormwater runoff remains the only source of water pollution in Virginia that continues to increase. It is likely that the increase in nutrient pollution and sediment pollution from stormwater systems is partially a reflection of the expansion of suburban development out into Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties and the increasing population and road traffic in these areas.

For agricultural operations the revised WIP requires the implementation of resource management plans and BMPs on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and perennial surface waters; stream exclusion of livestock; and implemented nutrient management plans. Virginia plans to continue to provide cost-share funding to achieve these goals through the Districts and has even expanded stream exclusion funding to 100%. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation 30% of the pollution loads in the Chesapeake Bay are from farming practices, the best money spent could be to implement agricultural nutrient management plans. That is why the DEQ has consolidated the water programs, Virginia need virtually all the farmers in the state to implement BMPs.

The Districts depend on the cooperation and willingness of community partners and volunteers to work with them in order to achieve their goals. The relationships and trust that the Districts have with their communities is their greatest strength. The Districts encourage participation using established relationships, technical help and financial incentives and now have 100% funding available for their livestock exclusion program to expand the reach of their voluntary conservation activities. In the idiom of the carrot and the stick, the Districts are strictly a carrot organization. This cannot be said about the DEQ. As the representative of the Virginia’s Cattlemen’s Association pointed out the Districts has been very effective in getting BMPs on the ground and the deadlines under Chesapeake Bay TMDL leaves no time for Virginia to step back and accept the change.

The Districts that objected to the consolidation under DEQ seemed to object primarily for concern for the cultural clash between the culture that has evolved at DEQ in dealing with regulatory mandates for large businesses that have compliance officers rather than smaller and moderate sized farmers who read their paperwork in the evening. The Districts need by-in from the farmers and cattlemen (and women) to make the progress that the EPA requires under the WIP. The Districts that supported the consolidation thought that the agency responsible for implementation for the WIP and Chesapeake Bay TMDL should house the soil and water conservation districts. This was especially true for districts that had significant urban and suburban storm water and non-point source involvement. Increased funding could help the Districts.
PWSWCD 2012 River Cleanup

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