UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In spring 2010, EPA set goals to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load was set to a level which would require a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen, a 24 percent reduction in phosphorus and a 20 percent reduction in sediment compared to 2009 levels by the year 2025. A significant swath of Pennsylvania, including the most agriculturally productive counties, lay within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, so the state was tasked with reducing its individual contribution of pollutants.
To make strides towards the Bay TMDL, all jurisdictions within the watershed formed Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plans, basically blueprints with specific strategies and measurable goals—stepping stones to reach the TMDL. Phase 1 WIPs lasted through spring 2012, at which point Phase 2 plans were released. In 2017, the EPA performed midpoint assessments to see how states progressing towards meeting the TMDL goals — the performance benchmark that was set for midpoint performance was meeting 60 percent of the necessary nutrient reductions. Based on this report, jurisdictions within the watershed are now in the process of forming Phase 3 WIPs, which are due to the EPA in April.
The 2017 midpoint report by EPA shows that Pennsylvania has an uphill climb to reach the TMDL targets by 2025. EPA has instated “backstop action levels” for both agriculture and urban/suburban programs, meaning there are “substantial concerns” regarding whether we will meet our goals in these areas, so federal actions have been taken to get them “back on track.” The trading/offset programs are under “enhanced oversight,” implying EPA may take action at the federal level to get the program “back on track.” The wastewater program is the only sector receiving a green light, with “continued oversight,” meaning EPA will continue to monitor, but the wastewater sector is on track to reach TMDL goals at the local and state level, so federal actions are not warranted.
Knowing we have a lot of work to do, farmers, non-profits, agency, university and ag service providers from all reaches of the Chesapeake Bay watershed met in Hershey, Pa., on Feb. 6-8 to tackle the monumental task of brainstorming the role agriculture must play in Pennsylvania’s Phase 3 WIP. The event was sponsored by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. The big idea and theme of the event: “harnessing agriculture’s culture of stewardship as a solution to clean water.”
The three-day event started with updates on Pennsylvania’s progress thus far from Matt Royer of the Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center. One of the priority initiatives identified at the last Pennsylvania in the Balance meeting in 2016 which has gained the most momentum and support from farmers is soil health. Lancaster County Farmer Jim Hershey of the PA No Till Alliance explained the strides farmers are making towards soil health and how this has immense impacts on water quality. Other speakers included representatives from: the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; the County Commissioners Association; the Susquehanna River Basin Commission; PA Farm Bureau; The Chesapeake Bay Foundation; PA State Conservation Commission; Lancaster Farmland Trust; and several other farmers from around Pennsylvania. Topics ranged from the Phase 3 WIP planning process, local engagement activities and importantly, perspectives on the opportunities, barriers and challenges for conservation agriculture practices.
Each day was a mix of large group lecture style presentations, discussion panels, small group breakout working sessions and reporting out to the large group the main points from the working sessions. Attendees were given over an hour in small groups to discuss each of the following over the three days: thoughts on the current draft of the Phase 3 WIP; how to advance soil health and nutrient management in agricultural landscapes; how to meet technical assistance capacity needs; the need for new funding and delivery strategies; and incentives for performance beyond compliance.
Since farmers are charged with doing so much of the heavy lifting to reach the TMDL targets, it is important that their voices were heard. Overall, the meeting was a great demonstration of how we can come up with creative and common-sense ideas by collaborating with a diverse range of people with different backgrounds, motivations and day-to-day realities to try to reach these lofty Chesapeake Bay TMDL targets. Stay tuned for Pennsylvania’s Phase 3 WIP to be published later this spring.
— Penn State University