House Ag Chesapeake Bay hearing deals with Pennsylvania enforcement issues

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2016 - Conservation efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are showing dividends, but some areas are still struggling to meet prescribed goals.

A hearing of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry had two focuses: discussing the voluntary conservation work in the Chesapeake Bay and digging into issues with enforcing conservation planning in Pennsylvania. There, local conservation districts are being asked to aid in compliance with Pennsylvania's Phase 2 Watershed Implementation Plan.

Under that plan, which was developed to comply with EPA's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) reduction strategies, 10 percent of Pennsylvania farms in the watershed must be inspected and checked for written plans for nutrient management and erosion control. Given shortfalls in staffing to accomplish those inspections, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection tasked local conservation districts with doing the inspections.

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“There's not a way forward without conservation districts,” Pennsylvania Ag Secretary Russell Redding said at the hearing. “They've been great partners, and we'll continue to work with them.”

But having the conservation districts engage in enforcement was less a request than a demand. Pennsylvania DEP left it to the individual districts to decide if they wanted to do the inspections. If they didn't, as nine conservation districts decided not to do, they missed out on funding they had received in the past.

In all, conservation districts in 29 counties opted to do the inspections. Those that didn't felt it wasn't the role of conservation districts to enforce government policy.

“Their chief worry was ‘we have this trust built up, and (enforcement) is not what we do, and we don't want to violate this trust,'” Coleman Garrison, the director of government affairs for the National Association of Conservation Districts, told Agri-Pulse. He noted that those nine districts had to “forgo money and, in some cases, forgo staff in order to keep this trust in place.”

Garrison said the districts that agreed to conduct the inspections are “still working out details” on matters such as producer privacy. As Redding pointed out at the hearing, Pennsylvania's agriculture sector contributes 55 percent of the nitrogen loads to the bay. By 2025, the bay TMDL calls for a 40 percent reduction in that amount - about 25 million pounds.

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Aside from a difference of opinion about who does the grunt work in Pennsylvania, the hearing was largely positive on the state of the Chesapeake Bay's nutrient reduction efforts. Subcommittee chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., called it a “model for success.” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller touted the $890 million in NRCS funds that have gone toward conservation funding in the watershed, investments that have led to decreases in nitrogen loads (8 percent) and phosphorus loads (20 percent) going to the bay between 2009 and 2015.

“We're starting to see a recovery of the bay, which is something I think we should all celebrate,” Weller told Agri-Pulse.

Weller also pointed out that soil conservation practices - cover crops, no-till, etc. - are underway on 97 percent of all cropland acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. EPA's goal to have all pollution reduction measures in place by 2025 is something that's achievable, he said.

“Officially, we're on schedule,” Weller said. “Personally, I feel we're ahead of schedule.”

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