Virginia will be the first state in the Chesapeake watershed to move forward with a "safe harbor" approach to reducing sources of pollution from agricultural lands, which will be a cornerstone of the commonwealth's overall effort to improve water quality in its portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

The program is designed to encourage and reward farmers for using a high level of best management practices to reduce runoff to the Bay. Participation is voluntary, but farmers who do participate may take advantage of a "safe harbor" clause that exempts them from complying with new water quality requirements that may arise over a nine-year period. By the end of that period, farmers do have to be in compliance with any state or local laws that have passed during the interim.

But the plan has lost the support of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which provided extensive input on the project and found it was headed in the right direction — until a requirement to provide a grass or forested buffer along pasturelands was removed at the last minute before final approval.

"It was disappointing, because this is a concept and approach we believe does provide an opportunity to bring more farmers into the effort to restore the Bay," said Ann Jennings, the CBF's Virginia executive director. "We had indicated that this last-minute change, which ultimately does not meet the (state's) water quality goals, left us with not being able to provide support for it."

Gary Waugh, spokesman for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation that released the final plan in May, said the change was made as a result of public comments that suggested the buffer requirement for pasturelands went above and beyond what had been required in the initial legislation.

He said such buffers could still be included in individual farmers' plans if it is determined they are needed.

The state had asked the Chesapeake Bay Program to run scenarios through its computer models to determine whether proposals for the safe harbor program would meet the state's overall water quality goals. Those analyses were used to determine which requirements should be included in the program. But neither the Bay Program nor the EPA, where the program is housed, officially review state ag certainty proposals to see if they meet Bay goals, said Kelly Shenk, agriculture adviser with the EPA's Region 3.

The CBF asked the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board to put the revised plan out for public comment again before granting the regulations final approval, but that request was not granted.

The board did delay the date the program will go into effect until Dec. 6, to give the agencies involved in crafting it time to write a manual for implementation.

Jennings said her organization would monitor the plan's progress, especially to get a sense for how it is received by the farming community. She said that reception is "key to this program having any effect on the quality of the Bay and Virginia's rivers and streams."

Wilmer Stoneman, Virginia Farm Bureau's associate director of governmental relations, has been at the table since the project's inception, representing some of the state's agricultural community. He said the comprehensive plan is the best method for addressing water quality concerns because he thinks farmers are more likely to participate when it's on their terms.

"We came up with the concept of a resource management plan to accurately deal with — on the farmers' terms, in their own way — the BMPs appropriate for their farm, not just the cookie cutter BMPs that are prescribed," Stoneman said.

The CBF did support a similar "ag certainty" plan in Maryland that gives farmers some assurance in the midst of changing conservation regulations in exchange for voluntarily implementing practices that are currently recommended but not required.

Maryland's legislature in May gave the state Department of Agriculture approval to go forward with its plan, in coordination with the Department of the Environment, despite the opposition of several environmental groups in the state.

Virginia's plan will focus on establishing a program to train and certify the private plan developers who will work with farmers, likely on a fee-for-service basis. Those developed plans will be submitted to agencies, including local soil and water conservation districts, for review, not unlike the nutrient management plans that many farms have.

The plans will account for and suggest specific practices such as riparian buffers, animal stream exclusion and soil loss practices. The safe harbor from new regulations is effective for nine years if compliance inspections are conducted every three years.

"A lot of farmers are already using conservation and best management practices and are familiar with our cost-share programs. This is, in some ways, a way of packaging all that into a comprehensive overall farm plan," Waugh said.

He added that the program aims to give farmers credit for what they've done while encouraging them to get "more practices on the ground."