Chesapeake cleanup challenged by Virginia farmers

Another opinion

At least one Rappahannock farmer begs to differ.

By Gary E. Barr
Special to the Rappahannock News
Few would dispute that the Chesapeake Bay, known as the ‘Great Shellfish Bay’ by the Algonquians, has changed since Captain John Smith explored its pristine waters in 1607. Once teeming with aquatic life, massive oyster beds, waterfowl and virgin forests, North America’s largest estuary is showing signs of stress.

Home to some 3,700 species, it is still a viable ecosystem, but four centuries of regional population growth have affected the bay’s productivity. Cleanup efforts in the bay begun in 1980 have intensified since the Chesapeake earned a place on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “dirty waters” list.

The bay is the largest estuary in the U.S. — 200 miles long and composed of 11,684 miles of tidal shoreline. Its watershed has somewhere in the range of 100,000 streams and rivers, and the region is home to almost 17 million people across Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Whether it’s runoff from watering lawns in suburbs, industrial drainage or farmers keeping their cattle from the streams, figuring out how to protect and conserve those thousands of rivers and streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay is no easy solution.

At stake are many who make their living from the land. It’s getting confrontational between some farmers and government officials — not so much in disagreement over the strategy but the tactics used to make it happen.

Government gets involved

On Oct. 20, 2009, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act (S.1816) in Congress. It is a blueprint for six states in the bay’s watershed to clean it up within 15 years. These states will be held accountable for ensuring urban areas, farms, and factories adequately reduce the release of harmful pollutants that make their way into the Chesapeake Bay.

EPA officials will provide oversight, and Cardin’s bill also provides financial support to assist all parties in the cleanup project — reportedly over $200 million has been earmarked to assist farmers.

“This is a major moment, really the most significant advancement in the Chesapeake Bay in the last 25 years,” Cardin told the press shortly after unveiling the bill.

About the same time the bill’s co-sponsor, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings stated, “Despite being informed by conclusive scientific evidence of what is wrong, the many voluntary agreements that have been signed with so much fanfare over the past quarter century have all failed to accomplish their shared objective of truly cleaning up the bay.”

The Virginia Farm Bureau agrees with many of the bill’s goals, but is strongly opposed to the bill because of its implementation methods. They say the financial burden the bill places on farmers will devastate much of their industry in the region. They are also concerned with several generalities and uncertainties as the bill is currently written.

“The problem is the state is getting a lot of pressure on cleaning up the bay,” said Chris Parrish, president of the Rappahannock County Farm Bureau. “The farmers are an easier target than developers. The larger problem is caused by impermeable surfaces like streets and storm drains.”

The costs that farmers will bear may send some over the edge financially and force some out of business, according to Parrish, who says, “Conservation-minded people are going to ultimately cause more development by running the farmers out of business,” Parrish said.

He said Rappahannock farmers have been asked to complain to their congressman about the Cardin bill and he is sure that some have done so.

“One of issues in Rappahannock County is that the cattle population is half of what it was 20 years ago. So the problem (of pollution derived from livestock) is taking care of itself” through attrition, Parrish said.

Forcing cattle ranchers to fence off their cattle from streams takes away land and could mean those with smaller herds have to go out of business, he said.

“It’s possible they (the federal government) will pay the farmers to fence out the streams. But they’ve still got to find a water source for cattle,” Parrish said.

They would have to dig a well or develop a stream to water their cattle, imposing an expense on them.

Parrish said the gross income from 100 cows is $45,000. A total of 400 acres of land is needed to maintain a herd of that size. “When you think about the equity, it’s unrealistic. Some will give up. It’s making it harder for them. It will cause subdivisions. It’s guaranteeing there will be more houses built” if the land is sold rather than farmed or used for cattle, Parrish said.

“The people making these mandates are sitting in an office,” he said.

Cardin’s office says farmers will be helped under the bill.

“We are providing unprecedented assistance for farmers. For the first time ever, all the basin states would be required to use a minimum of 20 percent of their EPA Chesapeake Bay funding to provide technical assistance to farmers and non-industrial forest owners,” according to a statement from Cardin’s office. The bill provides more than $200 million in new funding authority that is directly related to agriculture.”

VFB’s associate director of government relations is Wilmer Stoneman, who cites an example of the uncertainties in the bill by saying, “The money to assist farmers is not available until an appropriations committee says it will. Much of the bill has evolved into a kind of shell game.

“The bill puts the EPA squarely in the center of state water quality decisions. This is unconstitutional,” Stoneman claims. “Besides, the EPA doesn’t have enough workers to adequately oversee — it’s impractical and unworkable.”

The VFB is supporting an alternative bill to Cardin’s introduced by Maryland Congressman Tim Holden, H.R. 5509 and co-sponsored by Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.

The one big difference is that Holden and Goodlatte’s bill continues the past policy of “voluntary” efforts in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup project. Officials at Cardin’s office say, “The bill [Holden and Goodlatte’s] is generally good as far as it goes, but unlike Senator Cardin’s legislation, there are no deadlines to cleanup the Chesapeake. At the current rate of progress, the Chesapeake will not be restored for more than 40 years. Senator Cardin thinks that’s unacceptable. His bill requires restoration activities be completed in 15 years.”

Besides, Cardin’s office says, the bill does not “directly” hold farmers accountable. The six Chesapeake watershed states are currently working on pollution limits, compliance deadlines, and implementation plans to clean up the bay. Financial resources will come from the federal government to the states that are to meet the new clean-up standards. And the states are to hand out funds to farmers and other entities in order to assist them. If clean-up deadlines are not met, federal funding will be withheld in a punitive manner to those states, not the farmers.

State versus federal control

Another issue associated with the bill is state versus federal control. Farmers outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed join the VFB in wondering if Cardin’s bill will initiate expanded federal control and oversight of previously state-controlled land policies.

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Carl T. Shaffer responded to Cardin’s bill in March of this year: “Farmers are especially concerned about how the federal legislation could bolster EPA’s involvement in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where we believe new requirements could bring agricultural enterprises and business development to a halt by requiring more permitted farming operations, increasing permitting fees and placing cost-prohibitive restrictions on Pennsylvania farms, while doing very little to improve water quality.”

He pointed to great strides Pennsylvania farmers had made voluntarily and felt this progress would continue without the new legislation.

Cardin’s office emphatically denied expansion of federal control and stated that Cardin’s bill expressly prohibited the EPA from taking away powers from any state.

Farmers could possibly profit

Ann Jennings, the Virginia executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), recently wrote the following about Cardin’s bill:

“This federal legislation clearly recognizes Virginia’s lead role in determining how best to reduce agricultural runoff and other pollution to restore the bay and its rivers, including deciding what makes the most sense for farmers.”

Jennings went on to say that there is evidence, partially due to a University of Virginia analysis, that farmers could actually profit financially from Chesapeake pollution-reduction efforts.

Three of the CBF’s main goals for cleanup efforts to be successful are for any bill passed to:

1. Clarify the federal government’s authority to compel states to reduce pollution from all sources meet clean water requirements

2. Require timelines and implementation plans be established

3. Establish firm consequences if commitments are not met

S.1816 includes all of these, and as a result the CBF is strongly backing Cardin’s bill.

CBF President Will Baker applauded Cardin. “This is the most important Bay legislation in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s history. If passed, it will be a new day for the Chesapeake Bay. This legislation requires action to replace words. It will reduce pollution in the bay and the rivers and streams by requiring accountability, milestones, and severe consequences for failure.”

The CBF followed up by releasing a statement this summer: “The environmental tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico underscores the linkages between clean water and a healthy economy. Here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed we have our own variation of the Gulf oil spill tragedy — over 22 million pounds of polluting nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment spewing into local rivers, streams, and the bay every day.”

Farm Bureau reacts

In opposition, VFB Foundation President Wayne F. Pryor replied: “The environmental, cultural and historical significance of the Chesapeake Bay is not lost on Virginia’s farmers, and a great many of them have already taken voluntary steps to protect the bay and its tributaries. Others already operate under careful regulation to protect the bay. In light of their responsible actions, this bill is overkill, to put it mildly.”

In July, 2010 the American Farm Bureau has likewise encouraged farmers to write their congressmen in opposition to Cardin’s bill. They see the bill causing massive hardships and fear the federal government will increasingly impose their will on state-controlled land policy in the future.

Stoneman pleaded: “Let the Clean Water Act do what it is supposed to. Let farmers do their thing.”

“This time next year by decree, presidential order, or other announcement, localities will be expected to deal with allocations made to assist with bay cleanup,” Stoneman predicted. “If we don’t work together on this, it will not work. It will be civil warfare between the different entities competing for funds to meet bay clean-up requirements.”

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1 Comment

  1. Hundreds of people (me and Bob Goodlatte among them) attended the EPA draft Bay TDML information session/public hearing in Harrisonburg October 4 to hear what the state and EPA have proposed to clean up Virginia’s waterways. During the comment period, many farmers spoke. Some said they cared about water quality and had already voluntarily fenced their cows out of the streams and planted cover crops. Others questioned the science behind the Bay TMDL, saying the model didn’t account for the voluntary conservation practices they and other farmers have already implemented. And still others said that EPA needed to get out of the valley and out of farmer’s business; this comment generated thunderous applause (Yankee Go Home!).

    For the farmers who have already put conservation measures in place – thank you. Your efforts are appreciated. I am glad to see that you are still in business (despite the Farm Bureau’s claims that implementing conservation measures will put family farms out of

    For those of you who question the validity of the model because it doesn’t account for voluntary conservation practices, stop questioning the science. It’s a distraction. Impaired rivers and streams in Virginia increased from 2008 to 2010. You can argue over the pounds of nitrogen allocated under the pollution diet (TMDL), but you can’t argue that uncovered litter piles, putting manure on frozen fields and having cows in the streams is good for water quality. Instead of questioning the science, ask the rest of the farmers in Virginia to follow your lead to protect water quality.

    For those farmers who asked EPA to get out of the valley and out of their business, I couldn’t agree more. No one wants the EPA to regulate Virginia’s waterways; it’s the state’s job. But the state isn’t doing its job – Virginia’s watershed implementation plan is so inadequate that the Commonwealth is literally inviting EPA to take over. So instead of asking EPA to leave, we should all ask Governor McDonnell to ensure Virginia has a plan that protects and restores Virginia’s rivers and streams.

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