Thursday, November 26, 2009

Soil and Water Conservation District Impact to Waters of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

A large portion of both Prince William County and Fauquier County is within the Culpeper groundwater basin. In Prince William County the Culpeper basin consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic rocks with a lack of overburden that limits natural protection to the aquifer, which is one of the most productive aquifers in the state. The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act does not address the importance of groundwater to the watershed nor address the interconnected nature of groundwater and surface water. Under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act 2001 amendment, all the perennial flow surface water, connected and contiguous to tidal wetlands and buffer lands or within 100 feet of any of those features were made Resource Protection Areas of the Act. Virginia has not yet determined what percentage of the land area and population are subject to the act, but hopes to do so in the future. The “Tidewater” area as defined under the Act covers some of the most populous areas of Virginia. Portions of my land fall within the Resource Protection Areas of the Act, though according to the old geography books I live within the Piedmont of the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, I take my stewardship of this resource and my responsibilities under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act seriously.

I was very dismayed to read recently, that the Act was a “quasi-regulatory requirement” and is “likely only voluntary in nature because it does not require farmers or landowner to pay for the (soil and water quality conservation) assessments.” The September 2009 report from the Environmental Working Group Facing the Facts in the Chesapeake Bay,” is the source of that statement. The EWG identifies non-point source agricultural sources as the producers of a significant portion of the pollution in the watershed. This is an undisputed fact. The EWG points out that to achieve the target nutrient reduction in the Chesapeake Bay the six states have assigned two thirds or the nutrient reductions to agriculture. These are really the low lying fruit and can be obtained with agricultural “best management practices.” To achieve that end, the EWG argues that the six Chesapeake Bay states and the federal government must develop and effective regulatory framework to specifically implement the necessary farm best management practices by expanding federally regulatory authority over agricultural non-point source pollution. I do not believe that expansion of federal regulation and control are either cost effective or desirable. Self regulation is a proven and effective model. The resources available to educate and assist property owners should be more widely dispersed.

Virginia's Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) coordinates and directs programs and services to prevent degradation of the Commonwealth's water quality and quantity, though it is unclear if that mandate extends to groundwater. Most DCR soil and water conservation efforts are devoted to controlling nonpoint source pollution. Statewide nonpoint source pollution control programs support natural resource stewardship and assist local governments with resource management. These programs include technical assistance, education and research efforts are provided by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts which are funded through state agency budgets, through programs such as the sale of Chesapeake Bay license plates and by funds available from the federal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program under the Clean Water Act and the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) were established in the 1930s to take ownership of the dams within the state. Across the United States, nearly 3000 conservation districts almost one in every county are helping local people to conserve land, water, forests, wildlife and related natural resources. In Virginia, the SWCDs work to develop comprehensive programs and plans to conserve soil resources, control and prevent soil erosion, prevent floods and conserve, develop, utilize and dispose water. Today, forty-seven districts serve as local resources for citizens in nearly all Virginia localities except Arlington. Virginia's Conservation Districts take an ecosystem approach to conservation and protection. Their vision is to help all citizens of their District to have livable communities in harmony with the environment. The SWCDs offer free technical assistance and resources for many sustainable and environmentally-friendly projects from managing storm water, to technical assistance to farmers with specific nutrient management to protect our waterways. The SWCDs provide technical assistance for natural resource conservation best management practices and offer tax credits and financial incentives, when appropriate.
I plan to work with my local SWCD in the coming months to add my skills to their programs and to see how this great resource contributes to moving towards a sustainable Virginia and healthier Chesapeake Watershed.

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