By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, March 16 - 
The House Agriculture Committee's Conservation, Energy & Forestry Subcommittee delivered an unequivocal, bipartisan message to the U.S. EPA Wednesday: that EPA is exceeding its legal authority and is rushing ahead on its new Chesapeake Bay TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) pollution requirements without complete data or adequate cost/benefit analysis.

Opening the hearing “To review the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, agricultural conservation practices, and their implications on national watersheds,” Subcommittee Chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said that “I am concerned that states are being burdened with an unfunded mandate at a time when states are struggling to balance their budgets . . . I am very concerned about the burden that this action by EPA will place on farmers and citizens throughout the watershed. The TMDL regulations will have a devastating economic impact on my constituents.” He added that the country as a whole needs to be concerned because “The model and process used to develop the Bay TMDL will be replicated on watersheds across the country.”

In remarks echoed by many other members, Thompson told the EPA witness – Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe – that EPA isn't giving the agriculture community “the credit it deserves for engaging in voluntary practices that reduce nutrient and sediment runoff.”

During the hearing, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Dave White called the new goal of implementing conservation practices on four million acres of agricultural working lands in priority Chesapeake Bay watersheds by 2025 “ambitious.” But he told the committee that “NRCS believes that by focusing resources on priority watersheds and within those watersheds on priority lands, accelerating partnerships, and fully accounting for conservation practices, we can achieve a dramatic reduction of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.”

White assured the committee he's confident that given the great progress already achieved, “a voluntary, site- specific approach to conservation can work in the Chesapeake region.”

Afterwards, White told Agri-Pulse that NCRS has just now completed gathering a wealth of new data showing a far greater farm-level contribution to reducing nutrient runoff than previously credited. He explained that NRCS's “brand new” figures show that just in the past five years, Chesapeake Bay farmers have achieved remarkable reductions of 20% in sediment, 17% in nitrogen and 15% in phosphorus runoff. He said his own message he will be taking directly to EPA is that “the farmers have done a lot in the last five years that we don't really know about.” He added that the latest NRCS survey of 5,700 farmers in the bay watershed, done in person with trained enumerators, revealed that in responding to “What kind of tillage do you use,” farmers who answered “conventional” in fact were referring to conservation tillage – because “conservation tillage has become so accepted, that farmers think it is conventional.”

White is confident that Chesapeake watershed farmers are on track to comply with tightening TMDL requirements – and confident he can convince EPA to give farmers full credit for their conservation achievements.

White's confidence wasn't shared by others in the hearing. Virginia's Secretary of Natural Resources Doug Domenech said his state “continues to have concerns about the process, legality, allocations, and compressed timing in the development of this plan” along with “significant concerns with the nearly absolute reliance on management by computer model.” He said “The Chesapeake Bay Model may be a useful tool in predicting outcomes on a watershed-wide basis, however, while the model has seen years of development, it continues to contain fundamental flaws . . . the level of precision EPA assigns to the model is far beyond what the model is capable of.”

Domenech highlighted “apparent gross discrepancies between the loading calculations provided by EPA’s Bay Model and that of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.” With a 1.4 million acre difference between NRCS and EPA figures for actual agricultural land uses, he said “EPA cannot credibly demand compliance with a TMDL derived from a model that differs so dramatically.”

Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., warned that by failing to work closely enough with farmers and working too closely with “ideological” environmental groups, EPA has “created a hornets' nest out here” which will trigger a backlash and “end up doing more harm than good.”

In the hot seat at the hearing, EPA's Perciasepe said despite extensive and continuing interaction with farmers in developing Chesapeake Bay plans, he's personally committed to supporting improved communication with farmers. On the key question of legal authority, Perciasepe acknowledged that EPA does not have authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate non-point source pollution and confirmed that EPA “would not be regulating non-point-source pollution.” He said TMDL enforcement is a matter of state authority – and that EPA set TMDL standards for the Chesapeake Bay watershed since it is a multi-state area and so EPA took on the role of setting overall standards.

To read written testimony from the meeting, click HERE.

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