Monday, April 27, 2015

Virginia’s Voluntary Agriculture Programs are Reducing Pollution

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Healthy soil leads to stable food production and healthy water resources. Though in President Roosevelt’s day ecology was an emerging field and we were just beginning to understand how these factors work together, today we have models of the ecology that can quantify the results.

Volunteers, Partners, Directors and staff from the Region II of the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts meet for their regular spring meeting to discuss how their work to protect and preserve the soils and waters of the Commonwealth is helping the state achieve the Chesapeake Bay Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL) for nutrient contamination and sediment target.

The TMDL was mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is really a pollution diet. The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that were that represent about a 25% reduction in pollution to be achieved by 2025. Virginia and the other five Chesapeake Bay states and Washington DC were required to submit and have approved by the EPA a detailed plan of how they intend to achieve the pollution reduction goals assigned to them. These plans are called the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs and when used in conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay Model can quantify the performance. Russ Baxter, Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources for Virginia DCR for the Chesapeake Bay was kind enough to update the group.

Under the mandate by EPA and implementation plan approved by EPA, Virginia needs to reduce the nitrogen released into the Bay by 7.9 million pounds, the phosphorus released to the Bay by more than 1.1 million pounds and sediment released by 404 million pounds by the end of 2015 as compared to the 2009 baseline levels. These goals are just the first set of goals under the mandate and approved implementation plan which requires further reductions in released pollutants until 2025 when we are targeted to meet the overall 25% reduction goal.

All the information we have on how we are doing is based on the Chesapeake Bay Model. The good news is that according to the model, Virginia is ahead of schedule on reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus, the nutrients. Using the latest version of the watershed model (5.3.2) nitrogen reductions are ahead of the 2015 goal and phosphorus is ahead of the 2017 goal.

Unfortunately, according to the model the sediment levels have increased, though it is unclear why. It is hoped that revisions to the land use base data in Chesapeake Bay Model may produce a better sediment result. Overall, though, the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay was dismal at below 30% and falling the past couple of years. However, Virginia is doing well at meeting their goals helped by the billions of dollars Virginia had already spent on updating the waste water treatment plants and the success of their animal management programs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had recently completed an evaluation of Virginia’s animal agriculture programs and evaluating Virginia’s implementation of those programs. This included imputing agricultural census data (which found fewer animals than expected), and data collected by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in verifying the implementation and functioning of Agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs). Agricultural BMPs are approved and quantified methods of farming to ensure reductions in the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution going to waterways within the Bay Watershed. Though we have reduced the nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay from Virginia, it is discouraging that the overall health of the Bay has gotten worse.

The EPA’s assessment looked at Virginia’s implementation of federal and state regulatory programs that manage the large scale permitted concentrated animal operations, as well as voluntary incentive-based programs for smaller animal operations and crop operations to meet the nutrient and sediment reduction commitments in its TMDL Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP). The voluntary programs are implementation of agricultural BMPs by farmers with the help of the Soil and Water Conservation Districts who oversee the cost share programs that are used to encourage farmers to use the BMPs on their farms. There had been criticism that the agricultural programs were largely voluntary, but EPA found the programs to be effective and well implemented and monitored.

Reducing pollution from agriculture and converting acreage to stream buffers and restoring wetlands is the cheapest way to reduce pollution, and the state’s WIP expect to get 75 % of their nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution reductions from agriculture. Even with using the agricultural lands to achieve most of the pollution reductions, the costs of the Watershed Implementation plans are astronomical, about $13.6-$15.7 billion in Virginia alone.

The latest legislative session in Virginia maintained funding for the Conservation Districts though some cost share monies have been reduced. The Virginia Department of Forestry received $1.3 million from the Chesapeake Bay Funds. The NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is funded under the Farm Bill and has conservation programs and financial assistance programs that complement the work of the Districts. NRCS implements long list of federal programs that you might want to take a look at. Together we all work to help Virginia achieve its pollution goals.

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