The EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in May agreed to better coordinate their efforts to control nutrient pollution from farms and other pollution sources in the 64,000-square-mile Bay watershed.

In the Memorandum of Understanding signed May 10, the two agencies spelled out areas where they would work together, including prioritizing activities toward watersheds within the region which could have the biggest impact on Bay water quality.

“The agreement establishes a clear framework for a coordination of USDA and EPA resources that assigns priority to subwatersheds and conservation practices to restore, improve and protect the Chesapeake Bay and watershed,” said Gary Mast, USDA deputy undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, who signed the memorandum.

Creating such an agreement was one of the recommendations made by the inspectors general of both the EPA and the USDA in an unusual joint report late last year.

The report concluded that efforts to engage the agricultural community in Chesapeake cleanup activities have been hampered by the failure of the two agencies to work together as well as a lack of funding. (See “Report: Agencies must do more to control farm runoff,” January 2007.)

Agricultural land covers about 25 percent of the Bay watershed, making it the second largest land use after forest. But farms are the largest single source of nutrients to the Chesapeake, accounting for about 40 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus which degrades Bay water quality.

“Environment and agriculture are teaming up to clean up the Chesapeake like never before,” said Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water who also signed the memorandum. “Under this agreement, EPA and USDA will coordinate actions, align resources, tools, and partners, and monitor for results to accelerate clean water progress in the Bay watershed.”

Historically, the EPA has been the lead federal agency working on Bay issues, developing the science, modeling and monitoring tools which led to the establishment of Bay cleanup goals and helped to guide the development of state tributary strategies.

The USDA has been the focal point for contact with the agricultural community, and in recent years has been the largest single source of federal money directed toward activities that could help the Chesapeake.

In their report, the inspectors general faulted the EPA for not working harder to engage the USDA and farmers in cleanup activities, and it blamed the USDA for taking a “business as usual” approach to the Bay cleanup.

In the Memorandum of Understanding, the EPA pledged to more fully participate in priority-setting meetings with USDA agencies, including its state technical committees, and to meet twice a year with senior USDA officials to review progress and coordinate nutrient reduction activities.

In addition, the EPA pledged to more clearly identify areas where it needs USDA assistance, including research, outreach and promoting nutrient reduction efforts in priority watersheds.

The USDA promised to provide “appropriate representation” on Bay Program committees and subcommittees and other meetings where they could work toward meeting nutrient reduction goals.

It will also work to promote Bay nutrient reduction goals, and to encourage farmers to participate in research and implementation activities that test or apply nutrient reduction practices. The USDA also pledged to promptly evaluate new technologies and approaches to nutrient reduction and to integrate them into agency programs.

The EPA and USDA are also writing work plans that will more specifically spell out actions to be taken by each agency.