Federal report upgrades farmers' bay cleanup efforts

Study still finds most croplands need more pollution controls

March 15, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A federal study assessing how much farmers are doing to clean up the Chesapeake Bay credits them with making progress in reducing their pollution but says the vast majority need to do more to help the troubled estuary.

Conservation practices adopted by farmers in Maryland and the other five states draining into the bay have cut erosion by more than half and curtailed runoff of fertilizer by 40 percent, according to the study released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But 80 percent of the 4.6 million acres used to raise crops need additional measures, the report says, to keep fertilizer from washing off fields into nearby streams when it rains or soaking into ground water and ultimately reaching the bay.

The 158-page report comes as the Obama administration's push to increase Chesapeake cleanup efforts comes under fire from farm groups and their supporters in the bay region and nationwide. The Environmental Protection Agency's bay "pollution diet" requiring farms, cities and suburban areas to make further reductions in nutrient and sediment pollution is expected to face critical scrutiny Wednesday during a congressional hearing in Washington.

Dave White, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the study shows the effectiveness of relying on farmers to voluntarily adopt conservation practices — often with government subsidies covering 50 percent to 75 percent of growers' costs.

"The voluntary approach is working. There's still a lot we can do," he said, mainly involving "tweaks" to conservation efforts, such as adjusting the timing and the way in which they fertilize crops.

A draft version of the report that leaked last fall had painted a less optimistic picture, saying that nearly half the bay region's croplands are "critically undertreated" to keep pollutants from running or seeping into drainage ditches and streams. The final report found that just 19 percent of farm fields have what it calls a "high level of need" for additional conservation measures, while 61 percent need to make moderate improvements in controlling pollution.

White denied that the revision was politically motivated to ease public and government pressure on farmers. Instead, he said the change reflects better information showing that more fertilizer is consumed by crops and doesn't wind up polluting the bay.

Farmers hailed the report as a vindication of their contention that the real problems with the bay lie elsewhere. While croplands produce a disproportionate share of the bay's nutrient and sediment pollution, the report says, urban and suburban lands are responsible for much more.

"There's always more that needs to be done," said Patricia Langenfelder, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "But the fact is, farmers have increased what they've been doing over the years, and this report has verified that, in fact, we have been making progress in reducing our contribution to the bay."

The EPA, which has come under fire from farm groups and others for its computer model identifying the need for greater reductions in pollution, issued a statement saying that the USDA report's findings track with its own — that farmers have done much to help the bay but need to do more.

But Russell B. Brinsfield, head of the University of Maryland's Center for Agro-Ecology, expressed concern that the USDA study might overstate the impact of what farmers have done to date.

The USDA study's findings are based on computer modeling of all 84,000 bay region farms, drawn in part from hundreds of soil samples and a survey of farmers. But Brinsfield noted that despite farmers' efforts, the Choptank River, which drains mainly farmland on the Eastern Shore, has show no reduction in nutrient pollution.

"While it's encouraging, there's still this big disconnect between what the model says is happening and what the data show," he said.

Environmentalists questioned whether farm pollution can be reduced enough without tighter regulation.

"It's unclear whether reliance solely on voluntary approaches is going to make the kind of progress we need at the pace we need to restore the bay, especially if Congress year after year cuts funding for voluntary conservation programs," said Craig Cox, senior vice president with the Environmental Working Group's Midwest office.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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