Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay needs to be improved. To be sustainable for the future, the people of this region need to figure out how to live, work, farm and recreate in ways that allow the Chesapeake estuary to function and thrive.
Contrary to the opinions of some, maintaining well-managed farms and private forests is an essential part of the solution. Essential, rather than optional, because farm soils improve water quality through filtration; because farmers can achieving pollution reductions more cheaply than sewage treatment plants or urban residents; and because agriculture does all this while contributing more to the region’s economy than any other single sector.
The forthcoming Bay-wide TMDL will require deep reductions in nutrients and sediment, and present significant changes to farmers and every other Bay resident and business.
Bi-partisan legislation in the both House and the Senate has come through an often contentious and heated debate, with important policy and program tools help all of us to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization & Improvement Act was introduced in the House by Congressmen Holden (D-PA) and Goodlatte (R-VA), and passed out of the Agriculture Committee on unanimous voice vote. Rep. Holden worked hard to craft legislation that is responsive to the concerns of the agriculture community, recognizes their positive contributions, and helps set reasonable environmental goals for agriculture.
The second bill, The Chesapeake Clean Water & Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2009, authored by Senator Cardin (D-MD), was revised with support from Senator Inhofe (R-OK), which enabled it to pass out of committee, also unanimously.
Each bill provides essential tools and resources to improve water quality in the Bay, especially for farmers. The provisions in both bills are complementary and would:
- Offer regulatory protection, a “safe harbor,” to farmers who are on track in implementing a conservation plan.
- Reinvigorate the potential for environmental-trading markets (the Senate bill with guarantees for investors, and the House with an impartial oversight commission).
- Mandate a complete, full and accurate accounting of all practices farmers have implemented up to the present, and moving forward.
- Provide funds to implement conservation practices, technical assistance, and research on farms. The Senate bill provides 20 percent of all state implementation grant resources for that purpose, and investments in research.
- Mandate greater collaboration between the EPA and USDA. The House bill increases the USDA’s authority in setting technical standards and developing a nutrient-trading program.
When both parties and houses of Congress converge like this, it’s a sign of a real opportunity. At American Farmland Trust (AFT), we like what we see in these bills. Together they achieve a healthy balance of voluntary, incentive-based programs within an overall regulatory framework.
Farmers need clearly defined expectations and requirements coupled with the flexibility to adapt practices to fit their individual farm operations. Regulatory-only approaches cost the public and farmers more.
These bills offer an approach of shared responsibility and accountability. Farmers have done a lot to improve water quality, more than they are often given credit for, and more than other sectors. Nevertheless, all parties must be responsible and held accountable to take action and make improvements.
Farmers and environmentalists deserve a final bill that’s equitable, balancing clear environmental standards with tools that will get the job done. If like Congress, farmers and environmentalists can keep their common goals in mind, and come together in a bi-partisan way, this legislation provides the tools we need to have healthy farms and a healthier Bay.