Thursday, June 28, 2018

Horses and the Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters have been impaired by the release of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. 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. These pollutants are released from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, air pollution and other sources that enter the tributaries and Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. Though EPA set the TMDL goals, each state and the district created their own plans for meeting those goals. The pollution limits were partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

Virginia created a plan called the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) of how they intend to achieve their assigned pollution reduction goals. Under this cleanup plan Virginia has completed wastewater treatment plant improvements and expansions. Reducing nutrient and sediment pollution from agriculture is a significant goal of the WIP for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. An often stated fact is that agriculture is the largest source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. What is usually not reported is that agriculture is also the largest source of nutrient pollution because it is the largest active land use in the region not because agriculture is more polluting than other land uses. According to the Chesapeake Bay model, agricultural land represents almost twice the land as the developed areas.

Most of agriculture serves one purpose, to provide food. For agricultural operations the phase III of the WIP will require the implementation of resource management plans on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and perennial surface waters; stream exclusion of livestock over time; and implemented nutrient management plans. The Commonwealth provides cost-share funding to achieve implementation of these best practices through the soil and water conservation districts and the Virginia Agricultural Best Management Practices Cost-Share Program (BMPs).

Agricultural BMPs are approved and quantified methods of farming and animal agriculture practices to ensure reductions in the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution going to waterways within the Bay Watershed. 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. Each county of Virginia must meet its individual mandated reductions in the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution. There is less commercially cultivated land in northern Virginia than there once was. Much of the land that was formerly cultivated or used in the production of food has been converted to suburban residential and commercial use. Stables, racetracks and boarding facilities expanded in areas near cities as suburbia continued to expand into the state's rural areas. Horses are ridden, raced, bred and sold, used for recreation, and at least in the United States distinct from the rest of animal agriculture in that horses aren't food.

Nonetheless, the EPA model for the Chesapeake Bay watershed counts horses as agricultural livestock and, as with cows and chickens, their manure is a nutrient that can become a pollutant in the region's waterways. According to the Bay Journal Virginia has approximately 215,000 horses and each horse is estimated to requires two acres of land. In addition, a fully grown horse of approximately 1,000 pounds produces 40 – 50 pounds of feces and urine daily. This represents about nine tons of waste per year! Without a good waste management practice, waste grows out of control and becomes a source of pollution that washes off the land into nearby water bodies carrying nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), bacteria and pathogens into our water ways.

Horses represent a significant amount of “agricultural” pollution. Data from the Bay Friendly Horse Farm demonstration project in Prince William County, Virginia found that before the installation of BMPs soil and sediment loss was 0.95 tons per acre per year and that soil was carrying nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and pathogens into our waterway. If the Bay Journal data is correct than there are 408,500 tons of soil and sediment is carried away in storm water each year.

Recognizing the magnitude of its horse industry, Maryland began making horse operations eligible for cost-share programs to help pay for best management practices like fencing off streams in the 1990s. Pennsylvania horse farms only recently became eligible for state cost-share funds. In Virginia, horse operations are not eligible for the Virginia Agricultural Best Management Practices Cost-Share Program.

Horse people run farms but are not necessarily farmers. Traditionally, horse owners don't raise crops, besides grass on pastures, and they aren't as naturally intertwined with the agricultural agencies and Soil and Water Conservation Districts that provide assistance with conservation measures and advise, but at the end of the day, horse operations are a part of agriculture, and we need their help to reach the EPA mandated reductions in the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

No comments:

Post a Comment