Editorial: Remembering Agnes

Rappahannock County derives its name, of course, from the eponymous river, whose headwaters arise within our jurisdictional borders. So we should take some stakeholder interest in what happens downstream, particularly to the Chesapeake Bay, into which the Rappahannock’s waters ultimately empty.

So it was welcome news that our two U.S. Senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, joined with their Democratic counterparts in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania to co-sponsor an amendment to the farm bill to help farmers reduce erosion and nutrient run-off into the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed. Without their amendment, this “best practices” agricultural program would have been on the proverbial chopping block.

The Senate passed the five-year farm bill last week on a broadly bipartisan vote of 64-35. In addition to the Chesapeake amendment, the bill consolidates many duplicate U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, reforms nutrition programs, and cuts $23 billion from the deficit.

Coincidentally, passage of the bill came exactly 40 years after the first named storm of the 1972 hurricane season – Agnes – struck Rappahannock County and the rest of the Chesapeake region. To this day, significant parts of the Chesapeake ecosystem have not regained their pre-Agnes health.

The wind wasn’t the culprit (Agnes had been downgraded to a tropical storm); it was the historic rain – causing never-before-recorded runoff, an estimated 25 cubic miles of water dumped in a few June days into the James, Potomac, Susquehanna and Rappahannock River basins. Had there been a dam at Hampton Roads, the whole Chesapeake would have risen at least two feet!

If there had been other such storms before the historical record began, they were no doubt far less damaging because it was a different world and a different landscape – deep forest; soft, spongy leaf duff; endless wetlands and beaver-dammed streams. Instead, as noted by Baltimore journalist Tom Horton, Agnes fell on a watershed paved and storm-sewered, ditched and drained, fertilized and farmed. Nutrients applied to farmland had more than doubled in just a couple of decades, as had concentrations of manure from livestock and poultry.

Let’s hope that Rappahannock’s congressman, Rep. Eric Cantor, and his colleagues remember Agnes when the House of Representatives considers the Senate’s farm bill.

Walter Nicklin