Bay Journal

Report: Agencies must do more to control farm runoff

Inspector generals of EPA and USDA cite failure of both agencies to work together and a lack of funding

  • By Karl Blankenship on January 01, 2007
  • Comments are closed for this article.

The Bay region is unlikely to meet its cleanup goals by 2010—and may not for decades—because of a failure to substantially promote and fund pollution control efforts by farmers, a federal report concludes.

The report, an unusual combined effort by the inspector generals of the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that efforts to engage the agricultural community in Chesapeake cleanup activities have been hampered by the failure of the two agencies to work together and a lack of funding.

“At the federal level, EPA and USDA are key to accomplishing the environmental goals of the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” the report said. “However, in the past, their relationship has been one of two independent entities, often constrained by their mandated goals and directions, rather than partners with a common objective.”

The report said most farmers see no profit, and have few incentives to implement nutrient and sediment reduction controls on their land. Federal agencies need to better fund programs that assist farmers; support projects that demonstrate benefits of various nutrient control practices for both the Bay and for farmers; and better target where money is spent and how it is used, the report said.

“Current practices and policies are not resulting in the significant nutrient reductions needed to improve the Bay,” the report said.

The report blamed the EPA—the lead federal agency of the Chesapeake cleanup—and its Bay Program Office for not working hard enough to engage the USDA and the farming community, even though it has been clear for years that widespread action by farmers is needed to clean up the Bay.

Agriculture is the largest single source of nutrients and sediment, the main pollutants degrading Bay water quality. Farm runoff contributes about two-fifths of the nitrogen and phosphorus, and the majority of the sediment reaching the Bay, according to Bay Program estimates. Some independent analyses have put the agricultural share even higher.

Nonetheless, the report blamed the USDA for taking a “business as usual” approach to the Bay cleanup, even as evidence mounted that major new initiatives were needed to address pollution from agricultural sources. The department lacks meaningful cooperation over its multiple agencies that deal with landowners in the region, and has made little effort to steer additional resources to help address Bay cleanup issues, the report said.

It called for the EPA to develop a detailed agreement with the USDA outlining specific actions that are needed to promote Bay-specific cleanup goals. It also called for the USDA to better coordinate its Bay-related efforts and to target or redirect department funding to aid Bay efforts.

Reducing nutrient pollution has been a cornerstone of the Bay cleanup effort for two decades. Excess nutrients cause algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of the water when they die and decompose. The blooms, along with sediment, also cloud the water, killing off underwater grass beds that provide critical habitat for fish, shellfish and waterfowl.

In 2003, the Bay Program set new nutrient and sediment reduction goals aimed at restoring clean water to the Chesapeake by 2010. But at the current rate of reduction, it would take 28 years to meet the nitrogen goals and 15 years to meet the phosphorus and sediment goals, the report said.

State-written tributary strategies, which describe how nutrient reduction goals will be met, count on farmers to achieve nearly two-thirds of the nutrient reductions needed to clean up the Bay, largely because controlling runoff from farms tends to be less expensive than reducing runoff from other sources, such as urban stormwater.

The report called the strategies “overly ambitious” in assuming those goals could be reached by 2010, and noted the states have yet to identify how those strategies would be funded. It suggested that the EPA should require detailed implementation plans for the tributary strategies as a condition of grants to the states.

“This report is addressed to the two federal agencies, but carrying out the recommendations of the report has to involve our partnerships with the states,” said Rebecca Hanmer, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office.

The report said “federal funding at current levels cannot be expected to fill all the gaps” but said federal agencies could do a better job of directing existing spending to programs that would better help the cleanup effort.

Reaching tributary strategy goals would require farmers to adopt—on a grand scale—various “best management practices” to reduce runoff. Those include everything from writing nutrient management plans to reducing fertilizer use and establishing streamside forest buffers, to planting cover crops in the farm that soak up excess nitrogen in the soil after the fall harvest.

Of the 26 nutrient reduction best management practices used in the tributary strategies, nearly 12—or 46 percent—have barely been implemented, if at all, according to the report. “While the practices may be environmentally sound, they may not be economically beneficial to a business with a limited profit margin,” the report said.

The “ultimate success” of the Bay Program hinges on getting individual farm owners who do not see an immediate incentive to adopt new practices, the report said. The EPA and the USDA need to do a better job of working together to identify the most effective actions farmers can take to help cleanup efforts at the least cost, the report said.

When it comes to getting those practices on the ground, the report said, the USDA “may be best positioned to persuade producers to adopt progressive agricultural practices and to help communities and private landowners conserve natural resources.”

The USDA includes multiple agencies that work directly with farmers, and is also the largest single source of funding to help farmers implement various conservation measures. In 2004, the department provided $142 million in conservation funding in the Bay watershed, up from $27 million in 1994.

The report found some examples where the USDA had made the Bay a priority. Its Farm Service Agency targeted the Bay watershed for its Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production, and its Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to take added steps to protect habitat and water quality on idled land.

Nonetheless, the USDA “has not implemented a coordinated Departmentwide approach to addressing the Bay’s unique environmental needs.” It instead approaches the region’s unique environmental problems as though they were the same as those everywhere else in the country, the report said.

Its largest conservation agency in the watershed is the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which does not allow for geographic priorities in allocation decisions, in large part because officials are concerned they would become inundated with requests for special treatment for different regions of the country.

As a result, the NRCS has not augmented conservation program funding to meet the Bay’s needs. In fiscal year 2005, the NRCS did not fund 2,000 Environmental Quality Incentives Program applications and 1,500 other conservation program applications in the six states that make up the Bay watershed. “Each of these unfunded applications is a missed opportunity to help restore the Chesapeake Bay’s water quality,” the report said.

The NRCS has also been turning away many applications for technical assistance from people who need help implementing a conservation program, the report said.

Bay cleanup advocates said the report bolstered their argument that the region is short-changed when it comes to conservation funding for agriculture. They have made securing additional support when Congress rewrites the next Farm Bill—possibly this year—a top priority.

“It was the same story, written by a different author, and that story has been told for years,” said Roy Hoagland, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The bottom line, when it comes to agriculture, is funding for conservation practices and funding for technical assistance. This report, like others, reiterates that.”

Their contention was bolstered by a recent report by the congressional Governmental Accountability Office that concluded the USDA’s $1-billion-a-year Environmental Quality Incentives Program—its largest conservation program—uses an allocation formula which may not send funding to areas with the greatest environmental needs. In particular, the GAO found, dry rangelands benefitted from the formula, while problems such at nitrogen leaching were not significant factors in state funding allocations.

Arlen Lancaster, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service—the lead USDA agency for the Bay cleanup—said the funding formula is continually being updated, but disputed that it works against the Bay region. “I would say that our national allocation formula does greatly factor in water quality, and those resource concerns that directly affect the Bay,” he said.

Lancaster added that state funding decisions are made through technical committees which include stakeholder groups, agency representatives and others. “Those dollars are—because we are a locally led agency—being prioritized toward what those in the state think is the largest priority within the state,” he said.

EPA Bay Program officials acknowledged that they had not played an active role at state-level technical committee meetings in the past but have stepped up their presence.

Lancaster said the USDA was open to improving coordination with the EPA, but said the report failed to credit the agricultural agency for its efforts. “They are not recognizing how our conservation programs work, and I don’t think they are giving credit to agriculture for the improvements that it is making,” he said. “I don’t know that anyone else has invested the level of technical and financial assistance in the Bay that USDA has.”

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and Executive Director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Karl Blankenship

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