The recent report by the inspector generals of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA points, once again, to the woefully inadequate implementation of the agricultural components of the tributary strategies.
The report echoes what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been saying for years, and concludes that “excess nutrients continue to impair the Bay’s water quality,” and that “at the current rate of progress, the watershed will remain impaired for decades” (emphasis added).
The report focused on the failure of the federal government to develop a strategy for the implementation of agricultural best management practices to address agricultural runoff. The inspector generals found that “applications for USDA’s technical and financial assistance programs went unfunded, making it difficult to expand incentives for Bay area agricultural producers.”
“Difficult” is an understatement.
What is equally frustrating is the federal government’s repeated assertion that it is a full partner to the Bay Program and committed to achieving the Chesapeake 2000 agreement goals, while at the same time ignoring the obligation to fund the necessary practices.
In fact, last May, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson sent a letter to the states that said agencies of the United States have no obligation to meet their Chesapeake 2000 commitments if Congress does not appropriate sufficient funds.
It is apparent that the federal government recognizes that, with current programs and funding levels, the Chesapeake 2000 goals will not be met and that failure may have legal implications.
To date, the Bush administration has been unwilling to commit to the necessary funding. Fortunately, one way the federal government can keep its commitment will present itself in the form of the 2007 Farm Bill.
Thriving, well-managed farm lands are especially important in our region because they are vital to the long-term health of the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Acre for acre, these farms are a “preferred land use” because they generate less pollution than sprawling development, miles and miles of highways and other effects of suburbanization.
For many years, farmers in the watershed have demonstrated that they are willing to install proven measures to protect water quality from agricultural runoff. When compared to other measures to reduce pollution—treating air sources such as coal-fired power plants or retrofitting stormwater facilities, for example—supporting agricultural stewardship is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve water quality. But individual farmers can’t shoulder the burden alone, particularly when the costs of farming are skyrocketing, profits are shrinking and the pressure to sell land to developers is high, particularly in this region.
Every five years, members of Congress decide how to spend billions of dollars authorized in the federal Farm Bill. For the last several cycles, the Chesapeake Bay region has not received its fair share of these critical federal investments. This year, the decisions Congress makes could have a major effect on the health of farming in the watershed, and whether the Chesapeake 2000 goals are met.
Fully implementing the agricultural elements of the tributary strategies will deliver huge reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution.
Across the region, for nitrogen loads alone, the reduction could total 65 million pounds annually, almost 60 percent of the 110 million pound goal. Significant reductions in this loading will translate into improvements in water quality, habitat for fish and wildlife, and the quality of life for residents and future generations. And that doesn’t take into account the economic and cultural benefits of a healthy farm economy.
The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has stated that failure to properly fund these practices and end water quality impairments could lead to involuntary conservation practices that farmers would be required to implement. When voluntary actions would resolve the problem, such a result is not inevitable.
For the 16 million people in the watershed, clean water is a right, not a luxury. With the Bush administration and the EPA reducing funding for Bay restoration, it will be up to our senators and congressmembers to ensure that, through the Farm Bill, the federal government shoulders its share of the responsibility.
The CBF asks citizens to let their voices be heard. Visit www.cbf.org to urge your federal representatives to support a Farm Bill that will result in cleaner water and a vibrant agricultural economy.