In early October, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation delivered 18,000 letters from farmers protesting U.S. Senate Bill 1816 to Virginia senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb. To which Warner replied, “Some of the concerns you’ve raised have been taken into consideration and I think you’ll see a lot of changes in the next draft of the … bill.”   In support of his alternative bill Goodlatte says, “Instead of over-regulation and intrusion into the lives and livelihoods of those who choose to make the Bay Watershed their home, our legislation allows states and communities more flexibility in meeting water quality goals so that we can help restore and protect our natural resources.”

“Our bill sets up new programs to give farmers, homebuilders, and localities new ways to meet their water quality goals. This includes preserving current intrastate nutrient trading programs that many Bay states already have in place, while also creating a voluntary interstate nutrient trading program,” the Virginia congressman says.                      

Unlike Senate Bill 1816, Goodlatte’s H.B. 5509 does not have federal mandates. Though considered a much better option for both agriculture and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup by most people in the agricultural industry, this lack of federal control is reason enough for most in agriculture to support the alternative legislation.

Armed with new regulatory powers, the EPA gave Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York until Nov. 29 to correct "serious deficiencies" in their cleanup plans or face the consequences. According to the EPA, these five states account for more than 70 percent of the pollution that creates dead zones in Chesapeake Bay.

Dead zones are caused by nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants from treated sewage, fertilizer and animal manure that wash downstream into the Chesapeake and cause harmful algae blooms that deprive fish, crabs and oysters of life-giving oxygen.

Farmers and livestock producers in each state beg to differ with this assessment. For example, in Virginia the EPA guidelines include 15 percent of the land being in long-term conservation-tillage practices. In reality that number is likely in excess of 90 percent, leaving many farmers and agri-business people to wonder what other bogus numbers the EPA is using in its campaign to cleanup the Chesapeake Bay.                        

Nitrogen from farm fertilizer and manure has been singled out by the EPA as the leading pollutant of the Bay. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says his agency will commit $700 million to help farmers contain it. Total dollars required to cleanup the Bay by 2010 has been estimated to be from $7-$9 billion — that dollar figure goes back as far as 2002. How much it will take to cleanup the Bay between now and 2025 has been estimated as high as $100 billion. In Virginia, one small regulation — fencing livestock away from streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay — would cost in excess of $800 million. Secretary Vilsack, according to most farmers far understates the obvious when he says, “"No group in this country cares more about improving the soil and maintaining clean water than farmers.”

Katie Frazier, vice-president for communications for the Virginia Agri-business Council, says the challenge is huge. The Chesapeake Bay covers more than 64,000 square miles. In Virginia alone, five major river systems feed into the bay and 40 smaller tributaries feed into these rivers, she notes.         

“Farmers who think this is something going on in Virginia and it doesn’t affect me, think again. How Virginia and other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed balance the economic viability of agriculture with clean up efforts for the Bay will likely become the model for future watershed management models. So, stay tuned, the Chesapeake Bay model may be coming your way soon,” she warns.                                                                    

rroberson@farmpress.com