Monday, February 28, 2011

Solar Power Incentives In San Francisco- Making the System Work for You

This winter I have shared the journey that an acquaintance and her family have traveled to install a solar photovoltaic system on their home in San Francisco. Though the specifics like orientation, tilt, shading etc. of an installation will have a significant impact on the solar power produced by the system, all things being equal, a system installed in San Francisco will produce 13% more electricity than the same system installed in the Virginia/Maryland and Washington DC area. I actually thought the difference would be greater, but I used the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's PVWatts calculator to determine the energy production and cost savings of grid-connected photovoltaic (PV) energy system in both locations holding everything else constant to calculate that difference.

However, it is unlikely that everything else is the same. Andy Black, author of “Economics of Solar Electric Systems for Consumers” Payback and other Financial Tests,” says that systems design factors, like air flow, orientation and tilt, system reliability due to wiring and quality of components, and shading can be far more important factors in solar photovoltaic system production than weather and temperature across the United States. The specifics of an installation that cannot be (easily) changed like the orientation of a home, height of the roof, and shading from other buildings, trees, and roof vents and the quality of the installation design can impact how much power a system will produce.

The overall return from installing a solar photovoltaic system is dependent on the cost of the system, the cost of power and how much power the system produces. Solar PV systems and solar thermal systems for heating water will not save enough from electric (or gas) bills to make them financially viable in a homeowner's lifetime. The economic argument for installing solar panels is based on financial incentives provided by the government directly and through utilities to make the cost palatable. Even with the high cost of electricity in San Francisco, incentives are necessary. In San Francisco where PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) just made significant changes in their retail electric rates lowering the effective rates to homeowners the electric rates are charged on a tier basis, the fist tier is $0.11877, the second tier is $0.13502 and the third tier is $0.29824. (Previously, there had been a 5 tier system topping out at just about $0.50 per kilowatt!).

Based on the size of the system, its location, and the new lower electric rates in San Francisco, my acquaintance’s system should have a return of about 10-12% after rebates and incentives (depending on the federal tax rate applicable). The incentives are very important. Currently, PG& provides an incentive of only $0.35 per watt. This is a very small incentive compared to the ones I was used to seeing in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. However, there are other incentives available for San Francisco city residents. To encourage more installations of solar power in San Francisco, the City, though a program at the Public Utilities Commission, PUC, is offering incentives to residential power customers based on their income and location and not tied to the size of the system installed. These incentives can be quite generous, depending on your circumstances.

The basic incentive from the PUC available to everyone is $2,000. However, if you live in Bayview, Hunterspoint, Portola, Potero Hill or Dogpatch neighborhoods or are a low income customer enrolled in CARE or CALHome you are eligible for an additional $1,000. In addition, there is a $750 incentive for using a San Francisco based installer where the market is quite competitive. Finally, there is a $7,000 incentive for low income households. In San Francisco a low income household may have unlimited equity in their homes, but the annual household gross income must be below $86,000 for a four person household (senior citizens on social security would qualify). The income guidelines are based on household size so check this link to see if you qualify. Typically, in the San Francisco market, the incentives are applied for and issued to the installer and they bear the risk of complying with the system requirements and the burden of completing all the paperwork. However, the customer will still need to pay a significant amount of cash to have system that will eliminate most of their electric bill. Note, that only the PG&E incentive is tied to the size of the system installed so that a small system installed on a small home in the “Avenues” would be relatively less expensive due to the pricing structure of the incentives.

The San Francisco customer would have to apply for the federal tax credit themselves, though the federal form is simple, they are advised to talk to a tax professional since strategies for utilizing the tax credit are situation specific. A tax credit is more valuable than an equivalent tax deduction because a tax credit reduces tax dollar-for-dollar, while a deduction only removes a percentage of the tax that is owed. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 extended the tax incentives under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) and eliminated the limit on the credit and extended the tax credit until 2016.

Solar Photo Voltaic panels are one of the least cost-effective ways of reducing your use of non-renewable resources, but with the smart utilization of incentives they can be cost effective. We are all subsidizing the cost. This is accomplished by tax credits, state, utility and other rebates, and renewable energy credits or payments. Without net metering to serve as a 100% efficient battery to store excess energy when produced would require too large a system. Even with rebates, tax credits and incentives like tiered electric rates and the ability to sell renewable energy credits it would still make no sense to install a system. Even with all these incentives and net metering there is still a significant cash outlay and most if not all conservation measures have a higher economic return and should be done first. DSIRE, the database for state incentives for renewable energy, allows you to find all the renewable energy and energy conservation incentives for your location. Check it out.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Future of Lawn Care in Virginia

About half of the land area of Virginia is drained by the creeks, streams and rivers that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and two-thirds of the state's population lives within the watershed. From the Shenandoah Valley to the Eastern Shore, each Virginian can literally touch the Chesapeake Bay through the network of creeks and streams that cover the area. In an effort to reduce pollution in urban and suburban runoff one of the growing areas of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay estuary, the 2011 Virginia General Assembly passed SB 1831 that bans phosphorus in most lawn fertilizers and more tightly restricts the use of fertilizer by professional lawn and turf service companies. This bill was supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Piedmont Environmental Counsel.

The newly passed law prohibits the sale, distribution and use of lawn maintenance fertilizer containing phosphorus after December 31, 2013 and it will be unlawful to offer for sale any deicing agent containing urea, nitrogen, or phosphorus intended for application on parking lots roadways, and sidewalks, or other paved surfaces. The law also requires golf courses to implement nutrient management plans by July 1, 2017, and will utilize the existing resources of the Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Department of Conservation and Recreations to provide technical assistance and training and establish a cost-share program to assist in implementation of the nutrient management plans. For homeowners the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will develop consumer information and recommended best practices for the application of lawn fertilizer. The law also regulates lawn service companies and establishers reporting requirements for those who apply lawn fertilizer to more than 100 acres of nonagricultural lands annually This effectively leverages the existing resources and expertise to get the most bang for the buck in meeting the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and restoring the Chesapeake Bay estuary and should not impact property owners excessively. Research has shown that most lawns are not deficient in phosphorus and phosphorus free lawn fertilizer is widely available.

The TMDLs were created by a series of models of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that include various land use models, water quality models and watershed models. These computer models are mathematical representations of the real world that estimate environmental events and conditions. The models are at best imperfect, but they are nonetheless the best tool available to view the 64,000 square miles of the watershed. The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed are so large and complex, that scientists and regulators rely on computer models for critical information about the ecosystem’s characteristics and the impact of various environmental actions to reduce pollution.

Pollutions loads for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the urban areas are calculated using a constant pounds/acre/year for impervious acres as a fixed input, and the pervious load is based on total fertilizer sales data. Reducing the salting of roads, sidewalks and parking lots should impact the load number on impervious acres. Restricting the statewide sales of phosphorus containing fertilizer will reduce the total sales number which represents roughly five percent of excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution discharged into the Chesapeake Bay from Virginia.

Most lawns are not deficient in phosphorus. Despite the widely accepted myth that phosphate fertilizers will stimulate root growth of transplanted trees and shrubs, research at Washington University has proved this incorrect. Only soils that have been heavily used for agricultural crops or are acid sandy and granitic soils tend to have their phosphorus depleted. In landscaped urban soils, phosphorus is rarely deficient and the misapplication of this element can have negative impacts on the soil environment and the watershed without any benefit to the lawn or plants. Restricting the statewide sale of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus and educating homeowners about the inappropriate use of lawn fertilizers is a simple way to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff and save consumers a few dollars on unnecessary fertilizer. This could prevent the EPA from implementing stricter stormwater point source limits which was one of “backstop” threats leveled at Virginia if we fail to meet the Chesapeake Bay TMDL goals. This simple step should be all the more effective when the suburban/urban surface portion of the Chesapeake Bay model is revised.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fleeting Solar Incentives and Regional Markets

The government has determined that solar, wind and geothermal sources of renewable energy are to be encouraged. Tax incentives, cash incentives and rebates targeted at end users were created to encourage the adoption of renewable energy projects including solar panels. These incentives change from location to location and from year to year making the decision to invest in solar photovoltaic system very complex and potentially risky. The renewable energy credit that I obtained in Virgina to help offset the cost of my solar photovoltaic installation has been exhausted and there are no current expectations to continue to fund the program in Virginia. However, I have discovered as I look at programs in other locations that the state rebate in Virginia at $2,000 per kilowatt PTC was quite generous.

Over the past few months I have watched the price for SRECs (solar renewable energy credits) fall each month in Pennsylvania where I have been selling my SREC. If you recall, SRECs are not physical entities, but merely a credit for having made power (I used all the power produced by the panels in my own home). Because SRECs are not physical items their value depends entirely on regulation which can change over time and that is the inherent risk in making financial decisions based on regulations. There was always a risk that SRECs could become worthless at any time if regulations change. Of course they could become worth more. Meanwhile, I will continue selling SRECs on the spot market. I continue to observe the market and it appears to be due to changes in regulation.

Utilities in the state buy SRECs from solar installation producers to meet their mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard, RPS. It is a way for states to ensure that the upfront cost of solar power is recovered from utility companies (and ultimately from the rate paying consumers). Some states, like New Jersey and Maryland, require their utilities to buy SRECs only from residents of their states creating a closed market where the price is kept high. Other states, like Virginia, have no current RPS requirement. Still other states, like Pennsylvania allow their utilities to buy their RPS from any resident within the PJM regional transmission organization. The power in the grid is purchased and sold on a regional basis, so I suppose there is some logic to a regional SREC market, but it may not be in the best interests of state residents. There is a virtual market place where nothing is sold by virtual companies. Only accounting entries change hands in this market.

The SREC programs in the eastern states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, have been one of the catalysts for solar development because they increase the return on investment in a solar photovoltaic systems in their markets. When Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey recently updated their SREC laws to increase the requirements and raise the fines, the price in their closed markets went up. However, that change coincides with the falling SREC price that I have received. In addition, Pennsylvania has been examining closing its SREC sales to out of state installations.

When the original PA SREC program was created in 2004, the law included SRECs from out-of-state facilities. A recent PA bill to increase RPS failed, but it would have excluded all out-of-state facilities that have already been built and certified by the Pennsylvania AEPS Program to sell SRECs in the state’s market. These are existing solar facilities like mine that have been selling SRECs for the Pennsylvania market, and could be shut out of the SREC market in the future. This may actually be a good thing for the PA SREC market, but has the potential to significantly reduce the return from my solar photovoltaic installation. This; however, was always the risk with financial incentives based on regulations and laws in other states. This was a risk I accepted and must now live with.

The legislation creating SRECs and RPS in various markets is always in flux. In the District of Columbia, the RPS market has requirements of about 8 megawatts of installations at the current time, but there are over 27 megawatts of solar photovoltaic systems currently registered and certified in DC that are eligible for the DC SREC market. Only 1.1 MW of the 27 MW are actually located within the District. This situation creates the dynamics to limit access to the market in the future.

California has a series of solar financial incentives that are location specific and very different from the eastern markets. I will be looking the various incentives and costs associated with a residential solar project in San Francisco in the coming days. California does not have a SREC or as they call it a Tradable Renewable Energy Credits (TRECs) market to meet California’s RPS. Though there are stiff RPS in California utilities have not been allowed to buy TRECs to comply with RPS. In addition, the CA PUC has maintained cap on TREC volume and price preventing the development of a TREC market in the state..

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.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Chesapeake Bay Estuary

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Chesapeake Bay is the largest of 130 estuaries in the United States. Like all estuaries it is an incredibly complex ecosystem that we are only beginning to understand. Estuaries are productive ecosystems and habitats. The type of habitat is determined by geology, salinity and climate. The Chesapeake Bay serves as a nursery ground for the fish and shellfish industry and protects the coast from storm surges and filters pollution. The estuary filters water that is carrying nutrients and contaminants from the surrounding watershed. The nutrients in proper balance bring fertility, but excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has caused degradation in the habitat. As a result, US EPA has taken control of the situation (despite NOAA’s and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System mission to protect and study US costal estuaries) and has developed a new federally mandated TMDL (total maximum daily load) to try to restore the natural balance in the estuary by controlling nutrients in the local waters. The TMDL allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time.

About half of the Chesapeake's water volume comes from salt water from the Atlantic Ocean the rest is fresh water from more than 50 rivers and innumerable smaller tributaries within the enormous 64,000-square-mile watershed. As would be expected of this mix of fresh and salt water, the Bay's salinity gradually increases as you move from north to south and will change with rainfall and climate influences. Because salt water is heavier than fresh water, estuaries like Chesapeake Bay contain two layers: a saltier layer that lies on the bottom and a freshwater layer above. Mixing occurs where the two layers meet. Further mixing takes place as a result of wind, tides, temperature changes and rainfall.

Due to the coriolis force (earth’s rotation), one side in the estuary is saltier than the other side. In the Chesapeake Bay this rotation causes salt water accumulate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, so water tends to be saltier on the eastern side of the Bay at any latitude. Overall, however, the proportions of fresh and salt water in the Bay depend largely on the amount of rainfall that flows out of the Chesapeake's major rivers. During a wet year, the entire Bay will be somewhat fresher than normal, and conversely, a dry year will result in higher-than-average salinities. Salinity is one of the most important physical features in determining what lives in a particular part of the Bay, so plant and animal populations in the Bay differ north to south, west to east, and from year to year. Temperature and bottom sediment also determine the distribution and abundance of organisms.

Estuaries are classified by both geologic events that created them and water circulation. The Chesapeake Bay is a coastal plain estuary also called a drowned river valley. The Chesapeake Bay (and all coastal plain estuaries) was formed at the end of the last ice age. As the glaciers melted and receded, sea level rose and flooded the low lying river valleys. The deep water channel in the Chesapeake Bay is the ancient river bed of the lower Susquehanna. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is characterized by rapidly flowing rivers discharging to the bay where tidal currents are weak. This creates the most stratified or least mixed type of estuary (as classified by water circulation) - a salt-wedge. Fresh water, which is less dense than salt water floats on top of the salt water as it is pushed out to sea by the rivers. A sharp boundary with limited mixing is characteristic of salt wedge estuaries. The location of the wedge boundary varies with weather and tidal conditions.

Estuaries are fragile ecosystems that are very susceptible to disturbances both natural and those created by man. In the United States the ecology of estuaries has been severely damaged by man. Diverting fresh water from tributaries for irrigation and drinking water supplies changes flow, quantity of fresh water entering the estuary, and impacts the balance within the ecology. Excess nutrients and sediment from sewage treatment plants, farm fields and animal pastures, urban and suburban run off from roads and landscaping can cause eutrophication. As the ecosystem of estuaries declines, species die out, coastlines experience excessive erosion by wind, tidal action and ice. It is going to take knowledge, effort and resources (wealth in all forms) to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay

Phosphorus is essential for plant growth, but soils in Virginia are naturally low in phosphorus. Virginia soils require supplemental phosphorus to maximize crop yields and so are a necessary agricultural fertilizer. Phosphorus enters to Chesapeake Bay watershed from the actions of man. Farming and agricultural activities are often seen as the only source of phosphorus, but that is not true. Phosphorus is a naturally occurring element that is naturally found in rock, soil, water and all living organisms. Of the estimated 17 million pounds of phosphorus entering the watershed, it was estimated in 2009 that about 8.3 million pound of phosphorus was from agriculture and 6.5 million pounds was from waste water treatment plants and urban runoff from predominately pervious surfaces (lawns). The growing suburban/urban population is a serious contributor to contamination. However, concentrated poultry feed operations are significant sources of excess phosphorus.

To give you some perspective on the quantities of phosphorus generated in sewage, according to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the typical household generates 1-2 pounds of phosphorus per year and there are approximately 4.5 million households in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, representing 4.5-9 million pounds of potential phosphorus contamination (without the use of phosphorus removing technology at waste water treatment plants). According to a Maryland state study, each chicken generates approximately 0.35 pounds of phosphorus per year. Animal guano is a much bigger source of phosphorus than human waste, but the growing volume of households can create a problem that grows over the years.

The phosphate rock in its commercially available form is called apatite which is merely calcium phosphate. Other deposits may be from fossilized bone (animal or human) or guano (poultry waste). When plant materials and waste products decay through bacterial action, the phosphate is released and returned to the environment for reuse. Weathering and erosion of rocks and bones gradually releases phosphorus as phosphate ions which are soluble in water. A large percentage of the phosphate in water is precipitated from the water as iron phosphate which is insoluble. If the phosphate is in shallow sediments (wetlands), it may be readily recycled back into the water for further reuse. In deeper sediments in water, it is available for use only as part of a general uplifting of rock formations.

Most of the phosphate Chesapeake Bay watershed enters the water through the water run-off and release from waste treatment plants. Over application of phosphorus is caused by the use of manure from the concentrated poultry feed operations. Poultry typically has nearly equal concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen, though crops typically require 2.4-4.5 times the nitrogen as phosphorus. Pig manure has slightly more nitrogen than phosphorus. Cow manure has typically twice the nitrogen as phosphorus and is much less of a problem. Historically, manure has been added to obtain the correct nitrogen content not the lower phosphorus needs. The excess phosphorus is released through leaching, runoff and erosion.

As for waste treatment plans without an expensive tertiary treatment, the phosphate in sewage is not removed during treatment. So what happens in the release areas from waste water treatment plants is that the phosphate sediment (iron phosphate) builds up over time. Lower the concentration in the waste stream and phosphorus is released from the sediment. As removal technology has improved for nitrates and phosphorus, waste treatment plants have had to exercise careful balancing act to control the algae blooms. I can find no studies of impact from release from single family septic systems and this may be due to the low concentration and plant uptake and mineralization.

Phosphorus can be found dissolved in the soil solutions in very low amounts or associated with soil minerals or organic materials. The relative amounts of each form of phosphorus vary greatly among soils, with the total amount of phosphorus in a clayey-textured soil being up to ten times greater than in a sandy soil. (University of Arkansas). Organic phosphorus in soils is made up of a large number of compounds, with the majority being of microbial origin. Organic phosphorus is held very tightly and is generally not available for plant uptake until the organic materials are decomposed and the phosphorus released via the mineralization process. Mineralization is carried out by microbes, and the rate of phosphorus release is affected by factors such as soil moisture, composition of the organic material, oxygen concentration and pH.

The reverse process, immobilization, refers to the tie-up of plant-available phosphorus by soil minerals and microbes that use phosphorus for their own nutritional needs. Microbes may compete with plants for phosphorus, if the decomposing organic materials are high in carbon and low in nitrogen and phosphorus. Mineralization and immobilization occur simultaneously in soil. If the phosphorus content of the organic material is high enough to fulfill the requirements of the microbial population, then mineralization will be the dominant process.

Most of the phosphorus added to soil as fertilizer and manure is rapidly bound by the soil minerals to the inorganic form and is not subject to rapid release. Thus, soil solution phosphorus concentrations typically remain very low, the concentration of inorganic phosphorus (orthophosphates) in the soil solution at any given time is very small, amounting to less than 1 lb/Acre. Phosphorus in the inorganic form occurs mostly as aluminum, iron or calcium compounds. This series of reactions is commonly referred to as sorption or fixation. Iron and aluminum compounds will fix (tie-up) phosphorus under acidic conditions (soil pH <= 7), phosphorus is preferentially fixed by calcium and magnesium compounds. Phosphorus availability to plants in most soils is greatest when soil pH is in the range of 6 to 7. Hard water is particularly high in calcium compounds, iron and magnesium which allows the mineralization and why septic systems may be able to handle the limited amount of phosphorus released by the typical human household each year.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Farmers and the Chesapeake Bay

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, 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.

The EPA model’s allocation of pollution origination is the basis for the current “green community” anti agriculture stance. The agricultural sector is being viewed as an excessive polluter, though farm management practices have improved over the years. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model is a good tool in understanding how nitrogen, sediment, and phosphorus loads from different sources are delivered to the Bay. On a major tributary basis, real world data has been used to calibrate and validate the watershed portion of the model. Thus, it can provide predictive results of implementing best management practices, a useful tool to help make decisions about tradeoffs to control the loads of nutrients and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Implementing and maintaining best management practices and conservation plans on farms is difficult, because it involves changing often long established practices and the way that farmers manage their land and operations and requires a management plan for each operation no matter the size.

Frightened by the prospects of the economic impact of the federally mandated TMDLs forcing farmers to build fencing to keep livestock out of creeks and drainage areas that flow in the watershed and institute comprehensive nutrient management plans on all crop lands, a coalition of agricultural groups engaged LimnoTech, an Ann Arbor headquartered environmental consulting firm, to mount a challenge to the TMDLs. They compared EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Loads with those in the draft U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report “Assessment of the Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” and produced a report titled, “Comparison of Draft Load Estimates for Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”

Inconsistencies in data and modeling were found between the EPA and USDA. This is no surprise since there are significant problems with underreporting of nutrient contamination from the urban/suburban sector in the EPA model, while the calibrated and validated totals for the major tributaries are probably reasonably accurate based on the sampling validation. So, if the urban/suburban segment is under counted in its contribution to the nutrient contamination, then some sector or sectors are being assigned that additional load. It is probably true that a significant portion of the nutrient load from the urban/suburban sector has been attributed agriculture, and if you look at the potentially revised urban/suburban load with the septic and the wastewater treatment plants (after all the wastewater is coming from the urban/suburban sector) it becomes clear that the urban/suburban populations are responsible for the lions share of contamination. In addition, the food produced by the agricultural sector feeds the urban and suburban populations.

There is a world food crisis building. Virginia is blessed with a moderate climate and adequate rainfall. Eliminating agriculture from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is short sighted and quite frankly a really bad idea on so many levels. Nonetheless, farm practices and land management need to change. The TMDLs require a reduction in total nutrient loading in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. To achieve the TMDLs improvements in wastewater treatment plants, agricultural nutrient management plans, stormwater managements and reductions in population and economic activities are the only sources of these reductions. Agriculture is generally considered the least cost method of reducing sediment nitrogen and phosphorus. Implementing these changes will allow us to feed more people with the same land resources, bringing agriculture to the next level. We will carry this cost in either increased cost of food, or hidden in a nutrient trading program as an overall tax to economic activity. Nutrient contamination is about populations. We need to be very careful not to kill the economic viability of the region to meet the TMDL.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Restoring the Chesapeake Bay and the Federal Budget

On Monday, February 14th 2011 President Obama will deliver to congress his detailed budget request to congress. In these times the budget will face tough examination and debate in congress. The issues will be budget deficits, entitlements, earmarks and the role of the federal government. While there seems to be strong sentiment against earmarks at this time, there is disagreement as to what an earmark is. In truth, we as a country are about to embark on the second debate of Henry Clay’s “American System.” This is was a major issue in the first half of the 19th century. The “American System” was the extensive use of funds from the US Treasury supported by high import tariffs for regional improvements. However, the national system of regional improvements failed due in part to regional jealousies and constitutional squabbles about such expenditures.

This time, the debate will impact the implementation of the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs, necessary to achieve the Total Maximum Daily Load, TMDL, what the EPA likes to call the pollution diet. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL has been described as "another unfunded federal mandate" by various state officials. During Senator Ben Cardin's presentation addressing the Clean Water Coalition conference, he pushed for the attendees to write their congressional representation to secure funding for the clean up. Let’s back up and look at this view from a different angle.

The Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters are impaired by the release of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. These pollutants are released from waste water treatment plants, from agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, air pollution and other sources, including septic systems that enter the tributaries and Chesapeake Bay. These pollutants cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom.

Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded. Though control of nutrient contamination has improved in all areas of the region, the massive growth of the population of the region over that time has contributed to the problem and overall reductions in nutrient contamination have not come fast enough to meet the goals agreed to by the states and Washington DC. More needs to be done and in addition, all interstate compacts must be approved by congress and since the Chesapeake Bay Watershed covers six states and the District of Columbia, federal action was necessary to create and enforce action. The US EPA has taken control of the situation and has developed a new federally mandated TMDL to restore the local waters. The TMDL (finalized at the end of December 2011) allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time.

The benefits of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay accrue to the regional residents not the nation as a whole. Choose Clean Water lists the following benefits that Chesapeake Bay residents may realize when state plans are fully implemented:
•Less flooding, due to restoring and protecting wetlands and vegetative buffers and adding new stormwater controls;
Safer drinking water, especially for the numerous jurisdictions that draw drinking water right from the rivers that flow downtown;
•Improved quality of life for 17 million residents;
•Improved human health;
•Updating of aged sewage treatment infrastructure;
•Increased opportunities for tourism-based businesses;
•Better habitat for land-based and aquatic wildlife, creating fishable waters and more wildlife from migratory waterfowl to otters, game birds and black bears;
•Swimmable waters;
•Improved property values near the cleaner creeks, streams, rivers and Bay. Though there may also be increased job opportunities through infrastructure enhancements, technical assistance needs and new technologies developed to combat pollution, the cost of living in the region and the cost of doing business will increase. The implementation of Phase I of the Virginia WIP is estimated to cost $7 billion over the next 6 years.

EPA set the TMDL goals, but each state and the district created their own plans for meeting those goals. Certainly, federal coordination was necessary for technical advice and allocation of the nutrient budget, but the costs of the remediation should be born by the residents of the area. Every region has its own problems; however, the price of abusing the environment is hidden if we look to the federal budget to pay for the remediation of the Chesapeake Bay or any other region. It is undemocratic and unfair.

We in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed will benefit from the remediation and we the citizens of the region should pay for it. In Virginia this $7 billion dollars to meet the 2017 TMDL represents more than $1,500 for every person living within the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. To put this in perspective, the state would have to add a Chesapeake Bay surcharge to every property tax bill within the watershed for the next 6 years of $1,000 or more per household. I leave it up to our states and counties to determine how they will have me, my neighbors and Senator Cardin pay for our shares of this necessary remediation.