After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

The Bay Is Not Improving

(Posted by Tom Horton.)

In recent weeks there’s been a two-pronged push by agricultural interests to credit farmers with already doing most of what’s needed to reduce pollution; also to discredit federal computer modeling that says farmers need to do a lot more to meet the Chesapeake Bay restoration goals.

The extra credit comes courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service; the challenge to EPA’s modeling effort comes in a lawsuit filed by the American Farm Bureau.

There’s no doubt farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have installed a lot of good conservation practices, and that not all of these have been accounted for.

There’s also little doubt that the Bay computer model used by EPA could be better, particularly where agriculture is concerned.

But that doesn’t come close to justifying claims that farmers are nearly home free—in fact it could mean they have farther to go than we thought.

Here’s why: In all the back and forth of recent weeks, there’s been a dearth of real numbers, of actual monitoring of exactly how much pollution is moving off farm fields around the watershed.

The Bay model, the NRCS report and other reports by environmentalists that contradict it all must rely more than one would like on surveys and estimates.

There are precious few real-world monitoring efforts like Green Run on Maryland’s Pocomoke River, that have gathered highly credible data on farming practices and water quality for years.

What they show is both heartening and sobering: that if farmers stop applying manure to their lands and plant winter cover crops, water quality improves significantly—though perhaps still not enough to meet Bay restoration goals.

The downside is such practices are well beyond what most farms are doing in the region, and in other regions with large surpluses of animal manure.

In the control part of the Green Run experiment, for example, a subwatershed in Delaware where farming proceeded normally (and legally, meeting all Delaware’s water quality standards), pollution remained high. Yet if you ask Delaware officials, farmers there are all mostly in compliance with Bay restoration programs.

Another key data source—the levels of potentially polluting nutrients in farm fields—remains largely unavailable to EPA modelers, water quality managers and agricultural officials. It’s private and farmers aren’t required to make it known.

And some farming practices that are good for the environment and farmers in important ways, may not be good in other ways.

A case in point is “no till,” or “conservation farming,” where no plow breaks the soil; rather special equipment cuts a narrow slit, inserting seeds and covering the mini-furrow back up. This saves energy and holds soil on fields instead of letting it runoff; also holds phosphorus, which binds to soil and can harm the Bay if it moves off the land.

But conservation tillage also means farmers can’t work manure into the soil, which means it can run easily into waterways; it also does little or nothing to hold nitrogen, another Bay pollutant on the land, because nitrogen dissolves and moves to waterways through groundwater.

Currently the EPA model may actually over-credit farmers for this widespread conservation practice—at least in terms of how much they are helping water quality.

Again, there’s too little actual monitoring to sort this out.

There is, of course, monitoring of a sort. It’s called Chesapeake Bay; and in regions where agriculture dominates the land uses, water quality simply hasn’t been improving, or has improved only slightly. In some cases it’s gotten worse.

Model bashing’s easy, and we can trot out dueling surveys and estimates for years to come; meanwhile there’s real evidence that the Bay’s not improving.

That’s surely not all because of agriculture. Nitrogen comes from almost everything humans do, and sewage plants are big sources of phosphorus.

In fact there’s no need to single out farmers, rather to include them when we say, with absolute certainty: no source of Bay pollution is close to doing all it needs to do.

One Response to The Bay Is Not Improving

  1. Tom,

    I’ve been singing the same refrain to each new article on the website over the past few weeks. The current “method” of one side making a statement only to have the other side immediately rebuff it is getting us nowhere.

    Given the political and economic climate, it’s sure that we can’t expect any support from the Federal or state level for a very long time; in fact, we can expect the opposite. Just look at the full page ad in today’s Washington Post signed by the who’s who of the corporate world demanding that the EPA be stripped of its authority to enforce Greenhouse Gas limits. Just look at the list at the bottom of the page and you can imagine the impact of the lobbyists from all of those companies and advocacy groups tramping around the capital complex on a daily basis.

    That’s why I keep saying that we need to change the paradigm of how we address the issues at the local level. We need to bring the parties together at a Chesapeake Bay “summit” akin to the Global Climate Change summit, where the differences can be dealt with face to face. And focus on the people at the ground level, not the State level “commissioners” who will sign a agreement after agreement, but then do nothing to implement as has happened so many times.

    A summit would offer the opportunity for submission of papers, i.e. position statements in a series of general sessions, followed by group meetings/discussions on specific topic areas. The keynote would establish the goal of setting aside differences and coming to agreement by the end of the week on manageable working strategies over, say, the next year. Such an event could be repeated on an annual basis as a way to gradually chip away at the ongoing stalemate.

    Such a conference with the right prestige endorsements (here’s where the state/Federal officials come in) can, for example, draw the agribusiness players out into the open to confront the issue of manure disposal, with the environmentalists, the scientists and the farmers in the same room.

    I think taking the bull by the horns and battling it out amongst ourselves is the only hope at this point.