Producers in the Tar-Pamlico River basin in North Carolina are entering a new era. Under a new set of rules, agriculture as a whole in the basin must reduce nitrogen losses 30 percent by Sept. 1, 2006.

Phosphorus loading will also be examined, but policies are not currently in place. The rules call for no net increase in phosphorus loading based on 1991 levels. With a few exceptions, all producers in the river basin must register.

Currently, local agricultural leaders, officials with Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Cooperative Extension Service, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, and North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Community Services are holding meetings, setting up Local Advisory Committees, and registering growers in the state's fourth largest river basin.

The Tar-Pamlico River starts in eastern Person County, runs through Oxford, Louisburg, Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Greenville and Washington. The area has a population of 370,000 people. Some 700,000 acres of cropland fall within the river basin.

For a number of years, the adoption of nutrient-reducing best management practices was voluntary in the river basin, says Steve Coffey with the North Carolina Division of Water and Soil Conservation. The Environmental Management Commission designated the entire Tar-Pamlico River basin as nutrient sensitive waters in 1989.

In 1998, the EMC determined that agriculture hadn't made significant progress in nutrient reduction and started a rule-making process to reduce nutrient levels and put best management practices into place.

Coffey says producers in the area have less than five years to implement BMPs on their farms that will collectively reduce nitrogen losses by 30 percent. The BMPs would likely include, cover crops, conservation-tillage for corn in the Piedmont, filter strips, nutrient management plans, water control structures and riparian buffers, among others. Phosphorus BMPs may be established as the result of the work of a Technical Advisory Committee, according to the rules. Upon establishment, growers would have four years to complete phosphorus BMPs that result in no net increase of phosphorus loading based on 1991 levels.

Local Advisory Committees, made up of representatives from Soil and Water Conservation Districts, USDA-Natural Resources and Conservation Service, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Community Services, Cooperative Extension Service and at least five and up to 10 farmers who reside in the specific watershed, will develop local strategies, Coffey says. Two meetings are scheduled to provide important information on the rules and registration procedure to Local Advisory Committees: March 25 at the USDA Service Center in Washington and March 27 at the Nash Agricultural Center in Nashville. Meetings start at 7:30 p.m. on both nights.

The pasture industry is leading the development of a point system and pasture BMPs. A pasture point system will be used to account for the effectiveness of the pasture BMPs since little scientific data seems to be available on the impact of pasture operations and the effectiveness of nutrient reducing BMPs. The Soil and Water Conservation Commission has the opportunity to approve a point system and initial set of BMPs by September. The goal is to complete a manual of pasture BMPs developed by the livestock industry.

“At this point, we're just getting started,” Coffey says. “The purpose of grower registration is to inform them of the rules and the availability of technical and cost-share assistance. Growers will fill out a simple form and submit it to their Local Advisory Committee. The forms are to be kept in the county and should not be sent to Raleigh. The Local Advisory Committee will use the forms to identify active growers, their type of operation and the amount of land they farm.

“The advantage of doing it this way is all the farmers in each of the 16 counties of the Tar-Pamlico river basin will be able to work collectively to achieve their reduction,” Coffey says. Practices installed since 1991 will be counted in calculating the nutrient reduction, as well as in determining what additional steps are needed to get producers into compliance with the new rules.

“Farmers on the Local Advisory committees have a key role in helping us do the outreach so that all growers in the counties will know about the rule and where they can get help,” Coffey says.

The deadline for compliance with the 30-percent nitrogen reduction is Sept. 1, 2006. “If agriculture doesn't make significant progress or specific counties don't make significant progress in nutrient reduction then farmers in those counties would be required to implement standard BMPs and that would take flexibility away from them.”