Working Together to Clean Up the Chesapeake Bay

Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay has been a major concern in the region for decades. Farmers in the bay region, which includes Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Virginia and West Virginia, manage nearly a third of the land in the watershed. As a result, farmers must play an important role in maintaining and improving the region’s water quality.

A key challenge in meeting Chesapeake Bay water quality goals is how to achieve the right balance between helping farmers voluntarily adopt management practices that reduce nutrient runoff and insisting farmers do so through regulations. Perspectives on how far to lean in either direction vary widely among different stakeholders.

Farm and farmland in Lancaster County, PennslyvaniaOne group that is striking this balance in Pennsylvania is the Lancaster County Conservation District (LCCD). The LCCD’s approach seeks to balance its role as the farmer’s trusted advisor and neighbor with its mission to conserve natural resources. The LCCD board voted to force landowners to comply with state conservation regulations at the local level, a move that only 13 other counties in Pennsylvania have taken. The decision was based on the rationale that conservation is achieved most effectively when a more local entity acts as a buffer between state or federal regulatory agencies and the farmers. LCCD has set 2015 as its target date to have conservation plans written for 100 percent of the county’s farms, with a clear and consistent system to verify implementation that includes penalties when necessary.

To balance voluntary on-farm management with regulation, LCCD works to include farmers in the compliance process. Robert Shearer operates a 700 hog and grain farm on 250 acres in Lancaster County and also serves on LCCD’s Ag Compliance Committee. On his own farm, he has been implementing conservation practices for years. He recognizes that his efforts help him meet production goals while complying with Department of Environmental Protection regulations. When the compliance committee occasionally needs to fine a producer who has not responded to multiple requests to fix a runoff problem, Shearer feels confident the committee believes that everyone must do their part to “keep the soil where it belongs.”

Key Recommendations for Bay Restoration from the Conference Participants:
  • Get everyone involved. There were many players involved in polluting the bay over the years, and there will have to be many players involved in cleaning it up. In an effort to get past finger-pointing, a number of projects are consciously bringing the homeowners, farmers and developers together to address the many sources of runoff. Collaborative projects to install a rain garden in the town center, or plant trees on a farm stream bank, help neighbors see their challenges are not so different and that collective action makes a difference.
  • Waste not, want not. The production of meat and dairy products for Mid-Atlantic urban markets is a vital part of the agricultural economy. But having many animals in the region means lots of manure—so much that farmers are running out of fields to put it on. But recent innovations in composting, methane digesters and renewable energy solutions show promise for turning the problem into the next renewable resource solution.

This week, I had the opportunity to meet and learn from Mr. Shearer on a field trip that was part of the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Network Forum. This annual conference sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network brings together more than 30 grantees to share lessons learned from their work addressing water quality issues in the bay. The meeting of agricultural and conservation leaders demonstrated the passion and energy that people are bringing to bay restoration, from finding innovative ways to help farmers comply with conservation regulations to whole community approaches that stretch from farm-to-table.. The diversity of partnerships among grantees—representing ag groups, environmentalists, researchers, public employees and non-profits—is remarkable.

And those efforts are beginning to show positive results. The Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) Cropland Report released in March collected conservation data from farms in the region, made recommendations on the 4.3 million acres of bay cropland, and found conservation practices implemented on about 96 percent of that land. More recently, a study from Johns Hopkins found a decline in dead-zones—the oxygen-starved regions resulting from waters rich in nitrogen and phosphorus where plants and water animals cannot live—indicating that conservation efforts by farmers and others are beginning to pay off.

However, our work is far from complete. Achieving clean water will require well-funded, robust federal and state conservation programs and additional guidance for farmers to help them get those practices in place. It is important to give farmers credit for what they have accomplished, and the gathering of leaders and experts on water quality in the bay presents continued hope for future work. But we all need to ensure that we invest enough attention and resources to finish the job.


Jim Baird About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en

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