New day for the bay?

The tide is starting to turn for efforts to stop the flow of pollution into the Chesapeake

June 16, 2008|By William C. Baker

For years, there has been scientific consensus that the greatest pollution reduction to the Chesapeake Bay will be achieved through widespread implementation of proven agricultural conservation practices. These practices address the greatest source of pollution to the bay, are the most cost-efficient, and will yield the greatest return on investment.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has worked with a diverse group of partners - including homebuilders groups, municipal waste associations, local river groups and agricultural organizations - to fund and implement the states' bay and river restoration plans. Those plans, the scientifically designed road map for restoration, have languished without sufficient funding for much of this decade.

But the tide is beginning to turn. CBF and its partners have successfully championed new investments in farm conservation practices. At the federal level, an unprecedented $440 million has recently been approved for agricultural conservation practices to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay region over the next five years. When matched with state and farmer dollars, and with other programs and funding in place, this could achieve almost two-thirds of the region's nitrogen pollution reduction goal.

In Maryland, money generated by the "flush tax" has not only funded sewage treatment improvements but also dramatically expanded funding for cover crops, widely recognized as one of the most cost-effective and environmentally promising ways to reduce agricultural runoff. Farmers have signed up in record numbers. In addition, the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund, funded with $25 million this year and $50 million in following years, will provide additional opportunities for farmers to invest in conservation practices.

In Pennsylvania, more than 60 agricultural and environmental organizations partnered with CBF to win passage of $10 million in tax credits for agricultural conservation practices. The demand for those tax credits was so strong that it took only 10 days for the applications to exceed the funding. CBF has challenged the administration of Gov. Edward G. Rendell to honor its commitment to increase state funding now that the federal government stepped up to the plate.

In Virginia, despite a budget deficit of millions of dollars, CBF and its partners won $20 million for agricultural conservation practices during this year's legislative session.

Until very recently, the lack of funding was the major obstacle to implement agricultural conservation practices necessary to reduce pollution in local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Now that some of the needed funding is available, CBF is challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture and governors of the bay states to see that the funding is used to effectively reduce pollution.

Are we done? No, but it's a great start. And it's not just about the money.

The CBF staff continues to work with farmers across the watershed. In all three states, we are providing technical support to dairy farmers on pilot projects to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in dairy feed. This reduces costs to the farmer and results in manure nitrogen pollution reductions of 30 percent to 50 percent and phosphorus pollution reductions of 40 percent to 60 percent.

In Pennsylvania, CBF has worked with farmers to plant more than 2,000 miles of pollution-trapping buffers. In Maryland, the staff is working with farmers to implement innovative practices, from aerial seeding of cover crops to rotational grass-fed grazing and farmer-to-farmer mentoring programs, all designed to reduce farm runoff.

And in Virginia, CBF is working with the Waste Solutions Forum to fund the demonstration of a portable pyrolysis unit that can travel from farm to farm and convert excess poultry litter to renewable bio-oil and a sterilized, light-weight, slow-release fertilizer. Just this month, the newly constructed pyrolysis unit, the first of its kind, arrived in the Shenandoah Valley, and it is being evaluated by Virginia Tech's scientist and engineers. When the project is fully implemented, we expect to convert at least 100,000 tons of litter per year, removing approximately 5 million pounds of phosphorus pollution and 5 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from the bay watershed.

Some would suggest a more adversarial approach to reducing agricultural pollution. We believe a partnership with the farming community is more productive.

The goal is improved water quality. With recent investments in agricultural conservation practices, combined with investments in reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants and air, saving the bay may soon be a model of success.

William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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