Farm Conservation Practices are Working in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

Farmers are implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality

by Kelly Shenk

As the agricultural advisor for EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, I’ve had the opportunity to accompany the EPA mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator in talks with farmers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed through roundtable discussions and tours of their farms. We’ve observed their successes, challenges, and opportunities.  It’s encouraging to see how engaged farmers are in implementing conservation practices that are both good for their business and improving water quality.

Last month the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that pollution controls put in place over the last four years have resulted in an estimated 7% reduction of nitrogen, 11% reduction of phosphorus, and 6% reduction of sediment in the Bay Watershed.

Agriculture is responsible for about one-third of these reductions because producers have stepped up their conservation practices such as cover crops that take up residual nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil after crops are harvested. Other effective conservation practices include tillage that prevents nutrients and sediment from running off of cropland; and fencing to keep cows out of streams.

While this progress is encouraging, there’s still much that needs doing to restore the Bay.  Using 2009 as a baseline, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL or pollution diet calls for having measures in place by 2017 to achieve at least 60 percent of the pollution reductions necessary for restoring the Bay to water quality standards.  The Bay jurisdictions are in the process of achieving this objective through upgrading of wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, increased implementation of agricultural conservation practices, improving urban stormwater management, and addressing air pollution sources. All sources are tackling their share of the challenge

The pace of the Bay jurisdictions’ pollution reduction efforts will get quicker moving forward.  For agriculture, I think the keys to success are strong state programs, targeted federal and state financial and technical assistance, incentives that engage more producers, and continued innovation.

We’re encouraged by some of the progress that’s already being made.  We are seeing increased financing for high priority practices promoted by the States such as stream exclusion and cover crops.  States are strengthening their programs for addressing water quality concerns from small animal operations.  We’re also seeing incentives such as Ag Certainty programs to engage more producers in conservation practices.

In my time out in the field, I am always inspired at the creativity and innovation of farmers.  With a good knowledge of the States’ pollution reduction goals, targeted financial and technical assistance, and the flexibility to reach water quality goals in a way that works for their business, I’m confident they can get the job done.  But it will take all of us working together in all sectors, building on the progress that we’ve made thus far, and staying on track to reaching our goals of restoring our local waters and the magnificence of the Chesapeake Bay.

Kelly Shenk is EPA Region III’s Agricultural Advisor

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