Any watershed in the U.S. could be given National Treasure status. The Mississippi River Estuary, for example, would impact any land that borders a tributary of the Mississippi River. Land from Minnesota to Louisiana that borders any tributary of the river would be subject to the same guidelines as the Chesapeake Bay, if the Bay model is used as a federal model for pollution management.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay isn’t a new thing for farmers in the upper Southeast. In Virginia, for example, the state Grain Growers Association, which comprises about 90 percent of the cropping acreage that impacts the Bay, has been working with state regulatory officials for over a decade.

Since 1983, federal and state governments have spent more than $5 billion trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. After 27 years, nitrogen levels have been cut by about half the amount required, and phosphorus pollution is going up — some contend, though those figures have been disputed by a number of agriculture and non-agriculture organizations.

The Chesapeake Model estimates that in 1985 310.4 million tons of nitrogen was discharged into the Bay. In 2009, that number decreased to 247.5 million pounds. Under current guidelines that number has to decrease to 187.4 million tons by 2025.

Farmers contend the vast majority of the nitrogen and phosphorous pollution does not come from agriculture. In Virginia, agriculture claims over 90 percent of row crop land is in conservation-tillage, primarily no-till. This practice that started in the area in the early 1980s no doubt led to the decrease in nitrogen discharge into the Chesapeake Bay.

Many farmers do not get credit for conservation-tillage practices. The EPA guidelines being used to develop daily nutrient discharge levels for agriculture consider only 15 percent of row crop land to be in conservation-tillage. A recent Virginia Tech study contends 90 percent of this land is in conservation-tillage — the vast majority in no-till.

Federal guidelines, most agricultural leaders contend, are unreasonable and according to most Virginia farmers and regulatory personnel, the partnership between Virginia Chesapeake Bay cleanup leaders and agriculture has been working just fine. Despite these best efforts, the federal government has taken steps to take over the conservation and cleanup of the Bay, leaving many farmers in the upper Southeast to ponder-- what next.

The immediate ‘what next’ is U.S. Senate Bill 1816, The Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2010. This bill steps up the protections for the Bay by applying new, stricter regulations and extending the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Among other more restrictive policies, this bill would require livestock producers to fence every acre of their land that borders streams that feed into the Bay. The cost of this fencing would be too high for most livestock or row crop producers to afford without causing significant damage to their farm budgets. Though less severe, restrictions for grain farmers would be also be rather expensive.      

The leading voices for Virginia farmers are the Virginia Farm Bureau, the Virginia Agri-business Council and the Virginia Grain Growers Association. These organizations support an alternative bill, H.B. 5509, the Chesapeake Bay Program Restoration and Improvement Act, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th District of Virginia.