March 23, 2011
Last Wednesday, March 16, the Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry of the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on President Obama’s Executive Order for achieving improvements using the Clean Water Act to the water quality in watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay Region. The Order directed EPA to establish a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process for identifying nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment loading into the watersheds that has degraded waters below water quality standards designated by the states.
A major focus of the Subcommittee Hearing was the comparison of the recently released NRCS report entitled Assessment of the Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region and the TMDL model for assessing nutrients and sediment from agricultural land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Background in Brief – TMDL
The Chesapeake Bay TMDL can be thought of as a “pollution diet” for states in the watershed. Under the TMDL, the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are required to assess all sources of nutrient and sediment pollution, both point sources and nonpoint sources including agricultural sources. Based on this assessment, the states are then required to develop water pollution control plans, or “pollution diets,” that will reduce sediment and nutrient loading to achieve the existing water quality standards for these pollutants.
If EPA determines that a state’s watershed plans will not meet the water quality standards, the state will be required to revise the plan or to revise the water quality standards. Most state governments are extremely reluctant to revise water quality standards down to a level that acknowledges to the public that waters of the state are so degraded they cannot support swimming or fishing and other uses requiring adequate controls on water pollution.
Background in Brief – Agricultural Nutrient Policy Council
In December 2010, an Agricultural Nutrient Policy Council released a report comparing the nutrient and sediment load estimates in the EPA TMDL and the NRCS Chesapeake Bay Assessment. The Council was created and chaired by the American Farm Bureau Federation, The Fertilizer Institute, National Pork Producers Council, National Corn Growers Association, and the Agribusiness Retailers Association.
A representative of the Council and the head of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau testified at the hearing. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau have launched a lawsuit challenging EPA’s authority to undertake the Chesapeake Bay TMDL
The Council Report contends that because the CEAP Assessment and the Chesapeake Bay TMDL model do not have identical results, the TMDL should not be implemented.
EPA Deputy Under Secretary Robert Perciasepe and NRCS Chief Dave White, testifying at the Subcommittee Hearing, noted that the two assessments are based on different methodologies and that both assessments indicate that agricultural activities are a major source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Chief White also noted that the NRCS assessment is limited to cultivated cropland and that an update of the CEAP, with additional sampling points for cultivated cropland, is being prepared for release in the Fall of 2011.
In addition, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has released an assessment of the Agricultural Nutrient Policy Council report showing differences in methods that can account for differing estimates of agricultural contributions to pollution in the watershed, including different times and methods of sampling and differences in the extent of land included in the CEAP Assessment and the TMDL model.
A final observation – in the TMDL process, the implementation plans developed by the states to improve water quality in Chesapeake Bay watersheds recommend that 20-percent of cultivated cropland in the watersheds be converted to pasture, hayland, forest or forested buffers.
NSAC member organizations in the Chesapeake Bay Region assist farmers, with workshops and other technical assistance, in establishing grass-based dairies and other pasture-based farming systems that can reduce both water pollution and input costs to the farmer.
One example is the Maryland Grazers’ Network – a partnership supported through the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Future Harvest, NRCS, and the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. Grazers worked with this partnership to develop the Maryland Grazers’ Network. The Network partners new and experienced grazers directly through farmer mentorships and engages the assistance of technical specialists working with local conservation districts, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), and NRCS staff. Michael Heller, with NSAC member organization Clagett Farm/Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is the Coordinator for the Maryland Grazers’ Network Project Team.