Pennsylvania still has a long way to go in reducing nutrient pollution from its farms, jeopardizing the success of the federal-state “blueprint” for achieving restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation concludes.
Leaders of the organization said on a call with reporters Tuesday that conservation efforts in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia need to be accelerated to meet the blueprint’s goal of having adequate measures in place to meet water quality goals for the largest estuary in the U.S. by 2025.
“Farms across Pennsylvania are shifting toward production systems that improve the health of their soils to reduce erosion, nutrient and pesticide loss, and polluted runoff to local streams draining to the Chesapeake Bay,” the report says. “However, Pennsylvania is far off track meeting targets for practices such as rotational grazing and the implementation of soil and water conservation and nutrient management plans at the whole-farm level.”
Maryland and Virginia “are mostly on track to meet their pollution-reduction commitments overall,” the report said. “But their progress to date is largely due to wastewater treatment upgrades, which, while important, are not enough to finish the job. To do so, they need a major acceleration of efforts to address agricultural pollution and a concerning rise in pollution from urban and suburban development.”
CBF urged Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass legislation establishing a clean streams fund and an agricultural cost-share assistance program that would provide farmers the resources to implement needed practices.
Pennsylvania is relying on agriculture to meet 90% of its remaining nitrogen reduction targets, CBF noted. CBF, along with two Virginia farmers, Anne Arundel County and the state watermen’s association, is suing EPA for not enforcing the Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction targets for Pennsylvania and New York. The states of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, along with the District of Columbia, have also sued.
EPA said Tuesday it is reviewing Pennsylvania’s latest Watershed Implementation Plan, submitted Dec. 30. EPA had found the previous WIP deficient and said the latest plan is “intended to close a 9.8-million-pound gap in planned nitrogen pollution reductions needed to meet [Pennsylvania’s] Bay restoration commitments. The state said the amended WIP also includes reductions to compensate for future climate impacts.”
“EPA is serious about taking greater federal action to promote progress in Pennsylvania” if the latest plan fails to meet 2025 cleanup targets, or at least provides confidence to meet those targets, EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz said. Increased enforcement and federal oversight of permits are potential options, he said.
Pennsylvania's plan says the state "is committed to having all practices and controls in place by 2025 to achieve the nutrient and sediment reduction planning targets." The plan "provides reasonable assurance" that Pennsylvania will meet its commitments.
A significant obstacle to achieving the goals, however, is a lack of funding, the state said. "The total investment in both public and private funding from all sources needed to achieve the 2025 goals is estimated to be $521 million per year — an annual gap of $324 million" based on previous funding levels, the WIP said.
WIP partners, including the state's Departments of Environmental Protection and Agriculture as well as "many other local government, agriculture, environmental, community, academic, and business partners," expressed "a strong preference for legislation that would create a dedicated and stable funding source" for investments to address the funding shortfall, according to the WIP.
Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said in the EPA release, “Many farmers want to continue Pennsylvania’s current trend to improve water quality locally in the Bay watershed through increased conservation measures on their farms,” but they need more resources.
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“A predictable and reliable source of state funding to finance farm conservation measures would be a huge win in maintaining Pennsylvania’s recent momentum in water quality improvement and providing feasible opportunities for farmers to play a key role in achievement of water quality in the Bay,” Ebert said.
PFB told Agri-Pulse that it does not see the amended WIP being "fundamentally different from the original WIP as adopted in 2019" with significant input from PFB.
Between then and now, however, county action plans were developed in the state, again with input from the ag community, including county farm bureaus.
"Farmers consider improvement and maintenance of local water quality a vital part of their future success," PFB said.
Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia account for approximately 90% of the bay’s pollution, CBF said.
Maryland’s cover crop cost-share program certified nearly 500,000 acres in the 2019-2020 planting season, the state said in its report issued a year ago. That represented a 35% increase in acreage over the previous year.
But the state needs to do much more to stem runoff from urban and suburban development, CBF said. Maryland “adds about 6,000 acres of rooftops, roadways, parking lots, and lawns every year, an area larger than a city the size of Annapolis,” the report said.
Virginia needs to give farmers more assistance to implement conservation practices, CBF’s Virginia executive director, Peggy Sanner, said.
Virginia “has taken several positive steps to help address the problem, but without finding ways to massively accelerate the adoption of conservation practices on farms, it will not meet its targets for agriculture by the 2025 deadline,” the report said.
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