Tracking water pollution from farms

ON THE BAY

Passage: Students paddle from Shenandoah Valley to the Chesapeake, learning the route - and root - of much environmental damage.

July 22, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

KINSALE, Va. - "Smells like detritus!" hollers Justin Powers, 17, as our kayak flotilla noses into a salt marsh where the Yeocomico and Potomac rivers meet near the Chesapeake.

It is good that Justin and his 15 colleagues from Turner Ashby High School, in the far-off Shenandoah Valley farming country, know the odor of organic matter decaying from tidal marshes - vital fuel for the web of life in the Chesapeake.

Making the connections between farmland and bay waters has never been more pressing. This summer, it has spurred an extraordinary 355-mile paddle that began on streams through cow pastures in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains, and ends this weekend, 30 days later, in the blue crab capital of Tangier Island. Led by agriculture and ecology teacher Eric Fitzgerald, Turner Ashby has sent kids for years now on shorter three-day trips to Chesapeake Bay Foundation education centers on Tangier and Maryland's Smith Island.

On Smith, the Rockingham County public school's arrivals are an event for celebration. They come bearing a bounty of delicious chicken for an island-wide barbecue.

Rockingham and the surrounding counties of Virginia's poultry-growing region also send a less-welcome gift every day: loads of excess nutrients from manure that wash down the Shenandoah and Potomac.

These nutrients, along with pollution from sewage, dirty air and runoff from development, have hammered the growth of aquatic grasses that provide refuge for the bay's fish and crabs. Rockingham County's mixed tribute of chicken and chicken droppings is a microcosm of the paradox across the bay's six-state watershed. Its agriculture can feed the world, but not without unacceptable degradation downstream.

One of the most critical agendas for the next couple of years in restoring bay water quality will be prodding and helping farmers reduce pollution.

A coalition of environmental and agricultural groups and legislative organizations are focusing on the 2007 federal Farm Bill reauthorization. They would switch some of the billions of dollars annually that subsidize farmers for producing more, paying them instead for practices enhancing water quality.

And while this summer's Shenandoah-to-Tangier paddle by a bunch of schoolkids is scarcely a turning point in that larger agenda, anyone who spends a day or two with this group can imagine them playing a role.

"They are the greatest bunch of kids I've ever had," said Don Baugh, the longtime director of education for the Bay Foundation, which has taught tens of thousands of kids.

"They'll be changed for life by this experience," Baugh said. Some, he is pretty sure, "will become ambassadors for our streams and rivers and for the bay."

It's an extraordinary group. Many are Mennonites. They have held church services along the route. All are members of the old Future Farmers of America, now known as The National FFA Organization.

The name change reflects that this is not your father's FFA. "Virtually none of these kids are from traditional farm families," says Fitzgerald, though all are interested in careers -veterinarians, natural resource management, communications - that will involve or influence agriculture in some way.

Tara McFarland, 17, one of the paddlers, is both FFA and National Honor Society president at Turner Ashby. She and the others have been writing letters as they go to politicians about their observations on land use and water quality.

They've paddled since June 24 from streams to rapids to tidewater; from smallmouth bass and rainbow trout to rockfish and oyster-eating rays.

They've seen cows muddying and urinating in streams; talked to farmers who have dug deep into their own pockets to plant water quality buffers; and noticed farmland falling to housing developments.

Upstream - where they live -they passed signs warning against eating the fish because of contamination by mercury and PCBs. On the Potomac below Washington, they had to halt daily swims, despite the heat, as they paddled for miles through noxious algae that can be fatal if ingested.

They've met inner-city D.C. kids trying to restore the urban Anacostia River there; also with Virginia's secretaries of agriculture and natural resources. (Do NOT accept the bay environment you see today as normal, Natural Resources Secretary W. Tayloe Murphy Jr. urged them).

They've also seen that there's still abundant beauty, that 20 eagles can be spotted in a day, and sunsets and moonrises over the broad Potomac.

The trip has created "a tremendously good buzz" in farm communities, Baugh says, with coverage from the National Farm Bureau, National Geographic and the National FFA.

It's music to the Bay Foundation educator's ears. "Usually the buzz we've stirred up with agriculture has been the buzzing of hornets," he said.

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