Pennsylvania has long recognized the importance of the nation’s largest estuary—the Chesapeake Bay. Four agreements with neighboring states have been reached over three decades to protect the Bay and Pennsylvania waters.

Calling the Bay a “national treasure,” in 2009 President Obama issued an executive order for the federal government to renew efforts to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay.

An example of a “tilled” field. Courtesy: Sjoerd Duiker, Penn State University

In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established its pollution controls aimed to restore the Bay and its tributaries. Despite 25 years of restoration efforts dating from the 1990s, EPA charged that poor water quality persists.

EPA set a final Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to achieve reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from the watershed by 2025. This ‘pollution diet’ action to clean the Bay and the region’s streams, creeks and rivers requires 60 percent completion by 2017.

The Bay TMDL, 92 in total, is the most comprehensive and complex water quality roadmap EPA ever developed. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed encompasses about 64,000 square miles. In addition to two-thirds of Pennsylvania, it embraces the District of Columbia, and large sections of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Virginia and West Virginia.

Read more about TMDL here.

EPA’s strategy is accountability and enforcement. The agency required each state to develop a Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), establishing a two-year milestone delineated by agriculture, urban/suburban stormwater, wastewater treatment and onsite systems, and offsets and trading.

More needed by 2017

EPA’s interim evaluation of Pennsylvania’s 2014-2015 milestones reported that the Commonwealth is on track to meet the 2017 targets for phosphorus, but not for nitrogen or sediment.

To meet its 2025 commitments, EPA’s review said Pennsylvania must place additional emphasis on improving implementation in both the agriculture and urban/suburban stormwater sectors.

In this annual review, released last June, EPA said the agriculture sector would need to reduce nitrogen loads by 14.6 million pounds. EPA noted that its nutrient management acres would need to almost double, and to shift from standard management to decision and enhanced nutrient management to meet future goals. Also, more than 22,000 acres of additional forest and grass buffers would be needed to reach the 2014-2015 milestone compared to the slightly more than 3,000 acres implemented in 2014.

The urban/suburban stormwater sector is substantially off target, the review noted. In its WIP, Pennsylvania committed to reduce this sector’s load by 41 percent for nitrogen, phosphorus by 45 percent and sediment by 50 percent by 2025. To date, EPA said phosphorus has been reduced by 10 percent, nitrogen by 1 percent, and phosphorus by less than 1 percent. Increased implementation of the priority best management practices (BMPs) of urban tree planting and forest buffers, plus reduction of impervious surfaces and infiltration practices to reduce urban runoff, as well as stream restoration are needed to meet the pollution reduction targets.

In EPA’s March 16, 2015 review of Pennsylvania’s animal agriculture programs within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the agency noted the robust and well-implemented federal Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and state Concentrated Animal Operation (CAO) programs. But EPA said those programs regulate about 10 to 20 percent of animal agriculture, and the remainder lack a strong compliance assurance program to fully comply with the Manure Management Program and the Agriculture Erosion and Sediment Control Program.

Further, EPA said that beyond compliance with current regulations, additional state policies and programs are likely to be necessary for implementing conservation practices.

In a joint response to the assessment of the animal agriculture regulations and programs, Pennsylvania’s Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley and Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding agreed that the report “shines a light on opportunities for improvement and highlights the need for renewed focus on the Chesapeake Bay.” Quigley said a model watershed-based approach to assist farming operations has already begun. He added that Pennsylvania prefers voluntary approaches but if needed will enforce its nutrient management plans. Secretary Redding added, “While this report notes there is a need to do more, progress is being made and farmers are working to do the right thing. Our departments share a vision for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. When we have healthy, viable farms, we have a healthy, viable Bay Watershed.”

The conservation-oriented watchdog Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) called on Governor Wolf’s administration to change Pennsylvania’s course. Upon EPA’s interim assessment in June, CBF president Will C. Baker said, “If Pennsylvania does not significantly advance their efforts to reduce pollution then CBF calls on EPA to specify the actions it intends to take to ensure pollution is reduced. Unless there are consequences for failure, we are in danger of repeating the decades of failed Bay restoration efforts of the first three Bay agreements.”

CBF noted that agriculture in general is one of the least expensive sources of pollution to reduce, and the source that the Commonwealth is relying on most to achieve its water quality goals.

In the animal agriculture evaluation, EPA identified five priority BMPs to achieve the TMDL reductions—nutrient management, livestock and poultry waste management systems, soil conservation and water quality control plan, barnyard runoff control, and stream access control with fencing pasture. EPA indicated that when implemented, these five practices would reduce the animal agricultural loads by about 20.8 percent for nitrogen, phosphorus by about 41 percent, and sediment by about 10.5 percent. One or more of each of those BMPs fit within existing Pennsylvania programs.

These regulatory programs include Agricultural Erosion and Sediment Control, Manure Management, Nutrient Management, NPDES CAFO, and Commercial Manure Hauler and Broker Certification.

Although EPA recognized that progress has been made, the agency said if Pennsylvania would more fully assure compliance and commit additional resources, then Pennsylvania will be better positioned to account for existing, non-cost shared priority BMPs currently and achieve the WIP implementation goals.

EPA also noted in both the interim and animal assessment that both increased development and more numerous agricultural operations affected its milestone reach.

Accomplishments

In its 2014-2015 evaluation, EPA credited among Pennsylvania’s achievements support of the BMP cost-share funding of the Growing Greener program, its conservation tillage transect surveys with its pilot cover crop project, its three watershed assessments to ensure regulations and BMP implementation, the over 14,000 farm visits regarding requirements, and the developing tracking system for BMPs.

An updated nonpoint source management plan was released for public comment on June 20, 2015. Plus, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture plans town hall meetings with farmers and resource partners to discuss BMPs during late summer or fall.

USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service survey of tillage practices for major field crops in the Commonwealth showed that no-till and conservation tillage increased from 70.8 percent in 2007 to 84.4 percent in 2014, while conventional tillage decreased from 29.2 percent to only 15.6 percent.

In addition, many partnerships in Pennsylvania, often with the county conservation districts, engage in stream restoration projects.

Many Bay restoration efforts demand significant funds. On May 19, 2015 Senators Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA) requested USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to enhance its conservation efforts with additional funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The way forward

Secretary Redding concluded, “Farmers don’t want their operations to negatively impact their communities. They not only understand but respect the connection between agricultural practices, soil health and water quality. Healthy watersheds equate to healthy communities. We simply can’t have one without the other. The agricultural community gets that.”

Urging more involvement, Redding added, “The conversation and level of engagement has to change. We have to work across all levels of government, collaborating with our partners at the federal EPA, the Pennsylvania DEP, our stakeholders and our partners in production agriculture. We can’t move forward with addressing the WIP goals for the Chesapeake Bay or the needs of any of our other watersheds without that engagement taking place.”