Pennsylvania and Virginia will likely need to beef up regulatory and voluntary programs designed to control runoff from animal farming operations if they are to meet Bay nutrient reduction goals, according to recent reports from the EPA.
The reports found the states had a variety of programs that can help control nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff from the tens of thousands of farms with animals in the watershed.
In many instances, though, poor implementation, inadequate staffing and lack of funding may limit a program’s effectiveness, the reports said.
Reviews of Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia will be done this summer. A similar report for New York, done by EPA Region II, has been completed.
Agriculture is the largest source of the nutrient pollution that degrades Bay water quality, fueling algae blooms that cloud the water and removing oxygen critical for aquatic life when the algae die and decompose. Animal operations have been a particular problem, especially in areas with high concentrations of livestock or poultry, which can produce huge amounts of nutrient-rich manure.
Statewide in 2012, Pennsylvania had 29,364 animal agriculture operations and Virginia had 26,555.
State programs are important because the EPA only has authority to regulate the largest animal operations, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. They make up only a small portion of all the animal farms, and even on those facilities, actual oversight is typically left to the states. The EPA has the power to step in if there are problems.
Oversight of the more numerous medium and small farms rests entirely on a variety of regulatory and voluntary state programs.
Those programs have great potential to help states implement high-priority runoff control practices identified in their Bay watershed implementation plans, such as nutrient management planning and installing stream buffers. But the programs often do not adequately ensure those practices are fully implemented, according to the EPA review.
For instance, Pennsylvania has numerous programs that require a variety of actions on most farms with animals, but the report found the state often didn’t know how many farms were covered by various programs and oversight of these programs was lacking. Plus, the state agencies or county conservation districts that deal with some programs often lacked mechanisms to effectively share information.
“The report documents there are a number of existing state programs, both regulatory and incentive-based, that are not being fully realized,” said Jon Capacasa, director of EPA Region III’s Water Protection Division. “They are not being fully implemented. The compliance rates on the ground are not as good as the state expects or we would expect.”
For instance, every farm in Pennsylvania that applies manure to fields is required to have a manure management plan to guide manure applications and protect waterways. As many as 20,000 farms in the Bay watershed may need those plans. But the number of farms that actually have plans is not tracked by the state, and there is no requirement that plans be submitted to the state, the report said. Further, there is no assurance that farms with plans are implementing them. While county conservation districts conduct outreach to farmers about the plans, they are not authorized to enforce regulations.
The report noted that an EPA review of 24 farms in Lancaster County’s Watson Run watershed in 2009 found that 85 percent did not have manure management plans.
Similarly, erosion and sediment control plans are an important part of farm conservation management and are required for any operation where plowing or heavy animal use areas disturb more than 5,000 square feet. But the state does not know how many farms are required to have the plans, nor does it have a program, or the resources, to ensure that plans are being implemented. The EPA said its own review of large CAFOs in Pennsylvania during 2013 found “significant inconsistencies” between farm operations and erosion and sediment control plans.
The review found similar problems with ensuring compliance with other programs. The state’s CAFO program, which regulates the largest animal operations, covers many more facilities than is required by the EPA, but lacks cohesion because oversight is divided among multiple agencies, the report said.
Recommendations for Pennsylvania will likely get extra scrutiny from the EPA. Last year, the agency said it would ramp up oversight of the commonwealth’s agricultural programs because they were not making adequate progress toward meeting Bay nutrient reduction goals.
“We’re looking for the state to step up the effort in terms of establishing a compliance culture,” Capacasa said. And, he cautioned, “even full implementation of the current regulations will likely fall short of achieving the [nutrient reduction] goals.” The EPA is working with the state to find additional ways to accelerate progress, he said.
In a statement, Pennsylvania acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley and acting Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding acknowledged the need to better engage farmers to meet the state’s nutrient reduction goals for agriculture.
“The fundamental message of the report is a point we already believe and are committed to,” Quigley said. “We need to re-engage with all stakeholders to identify the most effective approaches that can be scaled up to achieve the goals set out in our watershed implementation plan. We’ve already begun a model watershed-based approach to assist farming operations to achieve voluntary compliance and correct water quality impacts through effective nutrient management plans.”
Compared with Pennsylvania, Virginia has fewer regulatory programs and they appear to cover a much smaller number of animal operations. Only the largest animal operations — or 4 percent of all farms with livestock and poultry — are required to have nutrient management plans.
Virginia’s CAFO program, which covers the largest animal operations, only recently began to issue permits.
The state’s primary regulatory program for animal agriculture is its Virginia Pollution Abatement Permit Program, which regulates most medium to large farms — about 1,037 in all. It was expanded last year. One new provision adds requirements for farms that receives poultry waste from a VPA-permitted farm. Farms are inspected on a regular basis, though the report found that state offices lacked consistency in how they conducted inspections and resolved problems. About 20 percent of inspected farms were not in compliance with their nutrient management plans.
Most of the state’s nutrient reductions from animal operations rest on voluntary initiatives, which often do not require the nutrient control practices emphasized in the state’s watershed implementation plans.
Its voluntary Resource Management Plan Program, launched last year, does emphasize a series of high-priority pollution control actions, including the implementation of nutrient management plans and stream bank fencing. In exchange, participating farmers receive “safe harbor” from future regulations for nine years. But the report said it’s unclear if the state has long-term funding available to maintain the program.
“Virginia overall has a pretty heavy reliance on voluntary programs, which we are not judging, good or bad,” Capacasa said. “The key is that they reach the goals set forth in the watershed implementation plans. We’re encouraged there is a high level of interest and sign-up for Virginia’s voluntary programs, particularly the stream exclusion program and the resource management plant program. The farmer buy-in has been quite good in the early stages of the programs.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which in part forced the reviews, said the reports show that existing programs are not sufficient to meet Bay cleanup goals and that states need to improve their efforts.
“The states have the primary responsibility to reduce pollution from agriculture and it is up to the states to ensure they have appropriate regulations and that farmers have the tools and resources to do what is necessary,” said CBF Vice President Kim Coble. “We hope these reports will encourage state officials to accelerate actions to reduce pollution from agriculture. If they don’t, EPA must hold them accountable.”
The Pennsylvania and Virginia reports, along with a New York report that was prepared by EPA Region II, is available on the Chesapeake Bay TMDL website: www.epa.gov/chesapeakebaytmdl/.