October 29, 2010
On Tuesday, the US Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) released a draft report that, given their usual alignment with agricultural interests, is surprisingly straightforward in its assessment of the inadequacy of conservation practices in place on farms in the Chesapeake Bay region. The report titled “Assessment of the Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region” is the second in a series from the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), initiated by the USDA in 2003.
Through the CEAP, USDA aims to (1) take stock of conservation practices currently used in watersheds and the effects they have on water quality, (2) estimate the need for additional conservation practices, and (3) calculate the potential outcomes if additional conservation practices were put into place. To generate data for the report, the USDA employed various methods including a farmer survey to assess current usage of conservation practices; a statistical survey of conditions and trends in soil, water and other natural resources; and three environment and watershed models.
The report notes that while “[g]ood progress has been made on reducing sediment, nutrient, and pesticide losses from farm fields through conservation practice implementation in the Chesapeake Bay region,” that “a significant amount of conservation treatment remains to be done to reduce nonpoint agriculture sources of pollution.” USDA-NRCS found that 81% of cropland in the watershed requires additional nutrient management to reduce the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus, and about half of the cropland is “critically under-treated” which means it requires conservation measures to address multiple natural resource problems. The report also notes that only about 10% of land in the watershed is used to grow crops, but cropland is responsible for 25% of sediment, 28% of phosphorus, and 32% of nitrogen delivered to rivers and streams that flow into the Bay.
The report serves as an important contribution, especially given its authoring agency. The EPA, the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia), and Washington DC have been working on plans to clean up the watershed and debates about how to do so have been extremely contentious, especially between agricultural interest groups, environmental advocates, and government agencies at the state and federal levels. Agricultural interest groups argue that voluntary conservation programs have been working and should be continued, but environmental groups support increased government regulations that would mandate on-farm conservation measures.
The notion that the USDA, which has historically behaved in a fashion that many perceive as friendly to the agriculture industry, has released a report that supports the view that voluntary measures are not sufficient is surprising. Add to that the timing of the release of this draft report (while the debates continue and EPA and state plans are being finalized) and it’s even more unexpected.
I hope that agricultural groups accept the evidence in the report and recognize that voluntary measures to mitigate Bay pollution are not enough. This report has the potential to support the effort to hold farmers accountable and mandate comprehensive conservation practices throughout the watershed.