Farmers in Virginia and five other states which border the Chesapeake Bay are caught in the crossfire between federal and state regulatory agencies trying to find a way to put the Bay on a pollution diet and restore water quality to federally set levels by 2025.

If only these farmers were affected, it would be a trial by fire for agriculture in the region. Reality is that more recent moves by the federal government put any such watershed in the U.S. in danger of facing the same regulatory restrictions that threaten to put livestock producers, in particular, and farmers in general from Virginia to New York out of business.

In other parts of the U.S. there is ample indication that agricultural leaders are paying close attention to the progress of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. For example, fruit growers on land that impacts the Puget Sound and empties into the Gulf of Mexico have established a direct line of communication with the Virginia agricultural organizations.

HR 3265, the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act of 2009 set in motion guidelines for a federal takeover of what amounts to putting the Bay on a pollution diet in an effort to clean up 60 percent of the Bay’s water by 2025.

When President Obama, by executive order, named the Chesapeake Bay as a National Treasure, he opened the door for similar action for any watershed in the U.S.

Far reaching implications

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.

Protest letters

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