In late 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a historic and comprehensive “pollution diet” with rigorous accountability measures to initiate sweeping actions to restore clean water in the Chesapeake Bay and the region’s streams, creeks and rivers. Every community within the Bay watershed, including Clarke County, will be impacted by the enactment.
Clarke County, Virginia, rests within a six-state watershed region where strict pollution limits are being formulated to limit the amount of pollution that can enter a body of water while still maintaining targeted water quality standards.
While farmers often are cited as the source of the Chesapeake Bay’s excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, some local leaders feel that placing the entire environmental blame on farmers goes too far and that planned additional farming restrictions don’t give local farmers enough credit for protective practices already being used.
“Farming practices have gotten a lot better over the years” said Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Russell). “What has changed is that there are more subdivisions. Farmers come off as the fall guy here when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay. We need to look at the poultry industry and all of the subdivision homeowners who sprinkle fertilizer on their lawns.”
Byrd said that she is also concerned that increased federal regulatory action will drive the cost of farming higher when farmers are already struggling due to increases in fuel and other costs.
“All of this is going to scare young people off from farming if we make it prohibitively expensive to go into” Byrd said.
For decades, increasing levels of pollutants have made their way into the Chesapeake Bay which once was one of the most productive environmental habitats in the world. However, increased levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and other chemicals have caused algae blooms that consume oxygen and create “dead zones” where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater Bay grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom.
The result of the environmental damage has been significant declines in the Bay’s health including loss of Bluefin crabs, oysters, fish and other species. The decline has also resulted in billions of lost dollars to the commercial fishing industry and tourism.
The new federal regulations are intended to restore the struggling Bay by reducing pollution sources across the Bay’s multi-state watershed.
The primary protective elements of the new regulations are TMDL, “wasteload allocations” for “point sources” like sewage treatment plants, urban stormwater systems and large animal feeding operations, and “load allocations” for “non-point sources” such as runoff from agricultural lands and nonregulated stormwater from urban and suburban lands.
Resource Planner Alison Teetor, Clarke County’s intermediary between farmers, federal and state agencies tasked with defining the local TMDL wasteload allocations, has a tough job ahead as she works to understand the complex requirements for implementing the new water quality regulations and then ensuring that county landowners comply with the measures. One reason, Teetor said, is that no authority has been passed on to local governments to enforce the measures.
“We have to come up with a list of best management practices (BMPs) that people can agree to implement by 2017” Teetor told the Clarke County Supervisors last week. “But an important question is how do we implement a BMP plan when we haven’t been given the regulatory authority to do so?”
Because of Clarke County’s rural character, new TMDL regulations could have a big impact on land use and, consequently, on the health of the Bay. According to Teetor, 53% of Clarke County land is dedicated to farming with another 43% in forest use.
Only about 4% of Clarke County is classified as “urban”.
Teetor said that she is currently working to compare data supplied by state and federal planners with local data on BMPs currently in use by local farmers and to identify BMP implementation scenarios and local strategies to reduce pollutant loads.
Teetor says that by October 1, 2011, the county is required to; Review the current land use and BMP data as presented to insure accuracy and make sure that the County receives credit for pollution prevention practices already in place; Look at the proposed BMP installation recommendations and determine if these are reasonable and achievable or if there are better alternative implementation scenarios to meet the target loads; Establish, in conjunction with the water resource plan update, strategies, a timeline and targets for achieving the agreed upon installations; Identify resource requirements (funding, staff, granting of new authority by General Assembly, etc.) to achieve planned actions.
However, the complexity and uncertainty associated the TMDL formulation process, which could dictate big changes in local farmland use, has frustrated local farm groups.
“It’s hard to go through a process like this when you can’t get clear answers on anything” Philip Shenk, a local farmer and representative of the Virginia Farm Bureau, told the Clarke County Supervisors last week.
“One study that I’ve seen estimates that it will cost $800M to fence all of the remaining unfenced streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed” Shenk said. “That would be a $30K expense for the average farmer. Costs like that scare us because we don’t have the financial resources to do that.”
Clarke County Supervisors Davis Weiss (Buckmarsh) said that he believes that the local farm community is already implementing many best farming practices and wants to be sure that county farmers are credited for their efforts when the new environmental directives are issued. Weiss also pointed out that the new water protection regulations could have far reaching impacts beyond just the agriculture industry.
“I think that the agriculture community can absorb the new requirements better than the construction industry can” Weiss commented. “If builders are going to be required to put in things like that monstrosity [the stormwater management retention pond] that we did for the new high school it’s going to crush the building industry.”
“No one in the county plows on a regular basis anymore and everyone uses cover crops” Weiss said. “All of the farmers that I’m aware of also voluntarily leave a strip of unfarmed soil along streams because they are trying their best to keep things out of the watershed. Farmers in Clarke County are doing a lot of things to protect the Chesapeake Bay that isn’t being counted” Weiss said.