Many farmers across the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed have taken voluntary action to improve water quality, according to research from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Results of the study were presented to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Agriculture Workgroup, which approved the survey methodology and recommended that the verified practices be credited in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model.
Agricultural conservation practices reduce the runoff of pollution: for example, planting cover crops help prevent nutrients from running off cropland, while streamside buffers can uptake nutrients before they enter waterways, stabilize stream banks and provide habitat for wildlife. The research effort—funded in part by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)—provides the first comprehensive inventory of conservation practices farmers have voluntarily implemented to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution flowing into streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The PSU Survey results were presented to the Bay Program's Agriculture Workgroup at their December 15 meeting. The Workgroup approved the survey methodology and recommended its use in the effort to document and verify practices in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model. The latest version of this model, Phase 6, is currently under development and review.
In early 2016, 6,782 farmers from 41 counties in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed completed the survey. More than 700 respondents were then randomly selected for farm visits, which confirmed farmers were accurate in their reporting. Respondents reported voluntarily implementing a range of agricultural conservation practices, including 475,800 acres of nutrient management plans, 228,264 acres of conservation plans, 7,565 acres of grass and forested streamside buffers and more than 1.3 million feet of fencing along streambanks.
Looking at Bob Ingersoll’s farm, you’d never know that he had been growing hay for over 15 years. The fields that had produced hay—and corn before that—are now covered in native grasses and wildflowers. Last year, Ingersoll enrolled his almost 60-acre farm in Chestertown, Maryland, into the Washington College Center for Environment and Society’s (CES) Natural Lands Project.
This September morning, Ingersoll and Natural Lands Project Coordinator Dan Small walk around Ingersoll’s fields, observing the growth and pointing out the different species of wildflowers and grasses they planted only five months earlier.
Ingersoll got involved with the Natural Lands Project through the Chester River Association, one of the project’s sponsors. While he chose to enroll his entire farm, CES typically works with farmers and landowners to plant 100-foot grassland buffers on their land. That way, they can still get money from agricultural production and rented-out land for hunting—as well as a small income from the Natural Lands Project—but also sow the benefits of grassland buffers.
These buffers are known as a best management practice, or BMP, because they can absorb nutrients that run off of farm fields and prevent sediment from entering waterways. But alongside their water quality benefits, buffers can also provide ideal habitat for many species of animals.
Quail and habitat restoration
A large component of the Natural Lands Project is creating suitable grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail. Quail used to be prevalent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and many people in the area grew up hunting quail, but their populations have declined drastically since the mid-1900s—due in part to habitat loss.
When it comes to installing grassland buffers, Small says, “we found that there’s no real tangible benefit to the landowners or farmers if we just talk about water quality on the land.” However, if they grew up hunting quail, they have an emotional connection to the bird.
Quail require three types of habitat to be successful: open areas, grassy cover and woody cover. “We’re specifically looking to create warm season grass habitat,” says Small. Cool season grasses, like those typically found on lawns, grow thick—meaning small grassland birds like quail that require open ground can’t move through them. “Think of your lawn,” he says. “If that grew up, there’s no way a quail could walk through that.” Warm season grasses, on the other hand, grow in clumps, leaving plenty of space for quail.
One of the factors associated with the decline in quail populations is the lack of woody cover. The disappearance of hedgerows—a row of shrubs or low growing trees that typically form boundaries between farm fields—has had a huge impact on quail, according to Small. As farms got larger, those hedgerows were taken out, and quail lost an important place to go during the winter when the rest of the landscape is covered in snow.
For that reason, dispersed throughout the grasses and wildflowers, are colored markers labeling where they planted hedgerows. “Not only are we adding nesting habitat in all the grass, but we need to add winter habitat as well.”
Creating habitat suited for quail doesn’t just benefit them, but many other species as well. “We have a lot more small birds here than we did any year that I can ever remember, because there’s something there for them to eat,” says Ingersoll. “And butterflies! I’ve never ever seen so many butterflies.” He points out bees and finds a fuzzy caterpillar on one of the wildflowers. Small points out the call of a bobolink, a bird that requires grasslands on its migration. Even deer take advantage of the tall grass cover, as evidenced by the imprint from where a deer had been lying not too long before.
A long-term commitment
It takes about three years for the grasses to get established, but once that happens, they still need to be managed. “You can’t just put it in and walk away,” says Small. After they’re established, they will be managed in part through controlled burns. As the grasses grow, they begin to lay down on top of each other, making it difficult for the quail to move on the ground. “Controlled fire is a really good method to wipe the slate clean,” says Small. “You don’t really hurt the native [plants] because they can respond to that and pop back up.”
Landowners who enroll in the Natural Lands Project sign a 10-year contact with CES. This long-term commitment is a promise both to CES that there is sufficient time committed to establish habitat on the land, but also to the landowner that CES won’t plant the new habitat and then leave. They work with landowners over that time to make sure that the land is in good condition.
“The landowner, somebody like myself, is relying on the best information I can get from Dan to make this as successful as I possibly can,” says Ingersoll. “If we didn’t have the backup, it’d be like learning it all over again. And I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Video by Will Parson
Lightning strikes, signaling a coming storm at Schrack Dairy Farm in Loganton, Pennsylvania. Owner Jim Harbach practices no-till farming—a method that leaves the soil undisturbed from the fall harvest to spring planting—along with other sustainable efforts to improve soil quality on the farm that has been in his wife's family for 12 generations, since 1773. Close to one-quarter of the land in the Chesapeake region is used for agricultural production, providing us with food and fiber, natural spaces and a multitude of economic and environmental benefits.
But agriculture is also the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay’s waters. Over-irrigating farmland, over-tilling soil and over-applying fertilizers and pesticides can push pollution into local waterways. Agricultural “best management practices,” or BMPs, are tools that farmers can use to reduce the runoff of pollution. Techniques like cover crops help prevent soil erosion, while streamside forest buffers can slow polluted runoff, stabilize stream banks and provide habitat for wildlife.
Learn more about how agriculture can affect the Chesapeake Bay and the tools farmers are using to help.
Image by Will Parson
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved programs in each of the six watershed states and the District of Columbia that ensure practices installed to reduce or prevent pollution are in place and operating correctly. These “best management practices,” or BMPs, can range from restoring forest buffers to planting cover crops to installing rain gardens. The state verification programs address all possible pollutant-loading source sectors: agriculture, stormwater, forestry, wastewater treatment facilities, combined sewer overflows, septic systems and on-site treatment systems.
It isn’t possible, however, to simply claim that a certain method is a BMP and should receive credit for pollution reduction. Chesapeake Bay Program partners developed and instituted a vigorous, watershed-wide verification process for these conservation and technical practices that includes initial inspection, follow-up checks and evaluation of performance. Each jurisdiction in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is required to have a comprehensive BMP Verification Program in place by 2018 to confirm that each practice tracked and reported for nutrient and sediment pollutant load reduction credit is in place and operating correctly. Previously, the EPA approved plans from the District of Columbia and Maryland but only conditionally approved Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. As of May 2016, all plans are now approved.
This is a milestone for the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership, as work can now begin to fully implement the components of these plans by 2018, connecting federal, state, local and non-governmental organizations with one common goal: the restoration and protection of the Chesapeake Bay and its waterways.
Improved management of roadside ditches may present an underused, cost-effective opportunity for improving water quality in the Chesapeake region, according to a new report from an advisory committee of scientific experts.
Ditches that run alongside roads and highways may not be the first image that comes to mind when considering water quality. But the thousands of miles of roadside ditches in the Bay region can have a significant impact on the health of local waters—contributing to flooding, pollution, erosion and degraded habitats. In the report, experts from the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) explore the subject and suggest potential means to improve ditch management in the region.
Enhancing the design and maintenance of roadside ditches could help Bay Program partners meet the water quality goals of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the report suggests. Among the report’s recommendations are the creation of a comprehensive roadside ditch management program, increased awareness through education and outreach efforts, and the targeted use of best management practices, or “BMPs.”
The report, Re-plumbing the Chesapeake Watershed: Improving Roadside Ditch Management to Meet TMDL Water Quality Goals, is available on the STAC website.
Rich soil and a mild climate have made the lands of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a haven for agriculture. Thousands of farms—more than any other county in the state—dot the landscape of gently rolling countryside. Traveling through the region, the fields and fences, barns and silos can begin to blur together. But venture onto the land itself, and each tract of farmland tells a unique story. For Oregon Dairy Farm in the heart of Lancaster County, the story is one of family, conservation and community.
A family-run operation, Oregon Dairy Farm is managed by George Hurst, his son Chad and his daughter and son-in-law Maria and Tim Forry. Hurst also co-owns the nearby market, restaurant and ice cream parlor with his brothers. He is the second-generation owner of the land, after his father bought the farm in the early 1950s. “I grew up here and bought the farm, bought the house where I grew up,” said Hurst. “Now my daughter, Maria, is living in that same house.”
Pennsylvania is second in the nation for number of dairy farms, outranking every state except Wisconsin. And that number continues to grow: in 2014, Pennsylvania was the only state in which the number of dairy farms increased. Though this may be good news for ice cream lovers, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile agricultural growth with the health of the Chesapeake Bay, as agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the estuary. But for the Hurst family, protecting the Bay is an important part of the way they run their farm.
Two decades ago, the Hurst family took a visit to the Chesapeake Bay. What they saw—polluted waters and their damaging effects on local fishermen—troubled them. “When I took that tour, I knew we had to do what we can here [at Oregon Dairy Farm] to make sure we’re not polluting the Bay,” Hurst recalled. “That’s when we became even more intentional with the practices we have in place here.”
Those practices include a variety of “best management practices,” or BMPs—conservation methods that can help curb nutrients and sediment from running off agricultural land and into rivers, streams and the Bay. To protect the health of waters running through their land, the Hurst family practices no-till farming, uses cover crops, plants trees and shrubs to prevent streambank erosion and has installed fencing to keep livestock out of waterways.
As home to 500 cows, one of the farm’s biggest challenges was figuring out how to manage all the animal waste. “Because we’re a dairy, there’s lots of manure,” Hurst explained. According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), livestock waste accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous entering the Bay. These excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of oxygen that plants and animals need to survive.
To avoid nutrient runoff, Hurst puts as much of this waste to use as possible. A methane digester collects and heats the manure, and the resulting methane gas powers a generator that produces more than enough electricity to run the farm.
After traveling through the digester, solid and liquid wastes are separated. Solid waste can be dried and used as livestock bedding or transported to the on-site composting facility. Three large hoop buildings house the compost piles, which will eventually be sold wholesale to landscapers or in Oregon Dairy’s retail lawn and garden store. Liquid waste flows to the lagoon, which holds about an eight month supply, allowing it to be applied to the land when the fields need it and will absorb it. “We make sure we aren’t putting more manure on than what will stay in place, and no more than what the soil needs or what will be taken up by the crops,” said Hurst. These innovative waste practices helped the farm win a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award in 2015.
Since the 1980s, outside dairy farmers, school field trips and other community members have been welcome to tour—and learn from—the farm. School tours bring nearly 2,000 student visitors each year, and Family Farm Days events can draw upwards of 15,000 people a year to the farm. More than just a way of life, Hurst and his family see their farm as a way to teach others about how they care for their land.
“Our passion and vision is to help people understand where their food comes from,” said Hurst. “That’s where [the farm tours] originated and that’s really why we do what we do.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
When thinking of wine, Maryland may not be the first state that comes to mind, but for the Deford family, the artful pairing of responsible land management and master craftsmanship at Boordy Vineyards has put the Free State on the wine aficionado map.
Nestled in the rolling countryside of Long Green Valley in Hyde, Maryland, a mere 30 minutes outside of Baltimore, the 240-acre property provides solace to visitors, melting away the stressors of daily life with views of rich vegetation, historic farmland and 25 acres of intricately arranged rows of grapevines.
The family strives to develop a lasting connection with the community and welcomes visitors year-round by regularly hosting events. “Everything we do here has an educational component to it because wineries are unusual in Maryland, farming is increasingly rare and we are constantly competing with other views of how the countryside around Baltimore County should be managed,” said Robert Deford, President and owner of Boordy. “We really want farming to succeed here.”
To Deford, a twelfth generation Marylander and the fourth generation to be raised on the farm, success and sustainability go hand-in-hand. In 2000, the family placed the property under permanent conservation easement through Maryland Environmental Trust, allowing the farm to proceed without having to compete with development money by taking the option to sell the land to developers off the table. “We look at land not as an empty resource to be built on, but as something to be tended to and taken care of. For me, sustainability means the ability to realize the dream of continuing to live and work here,” explained Deford.
The 25 full-time and 75 part-time employees have adopted the Defords’ mission of sustainability and assist in the efforts to be as efficient as possible. “If we are not sustainable by definition, we are going to go out of business at some point. The land is what sustains us, so if we treat it badly the system is going to crash,” said Deford.
A number of best management practices have been implemented on the vineyard to reduce the establishment’s energy demands and impact on the environment. Staff hand-pick the fruit – avoiding the use of machinery – to ensure only the highest-quality grapes end up in the wine; the rest are left for wildlife, like birds, to scavenge. Grass grows freely in between the vines to stabilize the soil and mitigate runoff of sediment into the adjacent stream on the property. Additionally, all stems and pomace are composted post-production and returned to the fields as fertilizer.
A wetland was created at the head of the stream to catch any residual runoff before it enters the waterway, eventually making its way to the Gunpowder River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. The wetland serves not only as a pollution buffer but also as habitat to countless species of wildlife such as beavers, ducks, white-tailed deer and raptors. “Another thing that is great is we have excluded all livestock [from the stream], and it is astounding the fish people are finding down there, especially the American eel. I think it is a great model for what can be done to a stream that was really in distress,” said Deford.
The family is mindful of their greenhouse gas emissions and works to reduce their outputs by using the carbon dioxide created in the fermentation process to stir their red wine tanks. The carbon dioxide is collected, builds up and eventually erupts through the tank – stirring the wine and saving electricity. “There is an interesting concern over the fact that when you make wine you emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; however, what I always point out to people is that just up the hill is the other end of it – those vines take in carbon dioxide, so really it’s just a cycle,” notes Deford.
Helpful for Boordy has been the advent of the local food movement, a developing culture focused around locally-produced food and the process of getting it from the farm to the table. With the movement comes a growing consumer demand to meet the farmer and know where food comes from. “This isn’t just liquid in a bottle,” said Deford. “A lot more goes into it.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Nestled next to Patuxent River State Park in Laytonsville, Maryland, are the 220 rolling, vegetation-rich acres of Waredaca horse farm. Husband and wife Robert and Gretchen Butts are the second generation to manage the family farm since Robert’s parents purchased the property in 1953. To them, Waredaca is more than just a business: it is their home.
The farm has evolved from a summer camp to a boarding stable for more than 80 horses, 30 of which are directly owned by Waredaca; recreational and competitive riders board the rest. The farm continues to host a youth summer camp, hold eventing competitions and offer year-round riding lessons. “To be able to make a living doing things you love—and to do it at home—is the best. This place is my life, and that’s pretty special,” Robert said.
The Butts’ connection to their land has sparked a deep sense of environmental stewardship within their family. “We’ve been here our whole lives, and plan on being here a long time. I think for a large portion of the agricultural community, that’s the case. Many have been motivated conservationists for years,” Robert explained.
A prominent part of Maryland’s environmental efforts to conserve farmland has included the equine community. “In recent years, certainly the state and Montgomery County have clarified in legislation that horses are a part of agriculture and therefore the services and outreach pertain to them,” said Robert. “Outreach to the equine community has been particularly important to [increasing] participation [in restoration initiatives].”
The Maryland Horse Council has been a strong partner with the state’s Farm Stewardship Certification and Assessment Program (FSCAP), which certifies agricultural stewards throughout the state. Since its development in 2010, FSCAP, administered by the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts (MASCD), has conducted 131 reviews on 108 farms and certified 91 agricultural conservation stewards protecting 27,000 acres in 16 counties. The Maryland Horse Council has helped FSCAP certify 20 horse farms.
According to the state, any farm with more than eight “animal units”—normally defined as one mature cow weighing about 1,000 pounds and her suckling calf—is required to follow a nutrient management plan to ensure that excess manure is properly disposed of. Assessors from FSCAP are trained by the Maryland Department of Agriculture to review nutrient management plans with the same attention to detail provided by official inspectors. Assessors also inspect other “best management practices” (BMPs), which reduce pollution and improve habitat on farmland. When certified, each steward gets his or her own webpage on the FSCAP website and the landowner receives a large sign to place on their property, advertising their environmental stewardship.
“The program was created in order to provide some positive recognition for farmers that are doing a great job [caring for the land], in light of what seems like fairly constant criticism about agriculture’s role in polluting the Chesapeake Bay,” said FSCAP Project Leader Gerald Talbert. “We carefully gathered core partners for this program because we wanted both the agricultural and the environmental communities to be involved.”
"Many stewards feel that certification means more than just personal recognition; it’s also good for business,especially with farms that deal directly with the public” Talbert said. “ So far, we’ve provided 91 signs, but there are 133 signs displayed.
By working together, Robert and Gerald were able to identify and address a streamside fencing issue that thwarted Waredaca’s certification efforts. The problem has since been fixed and the farm has been certified.
The Butts follow a nutrient management plan, composting their manure and spreading it on their fields to encourage rich soil and healthy pastures. They have also put a number of BMPs in place: a manure storage facility, a spring-fed water tank and stream-side buffers with fencing to keep horses out of streams, thereby keeping the surrounding creeks and streams clean.
The Butts also practice rotational grazing. Strategically moving livestock to fresh pastures can allow previously grazed fields to regenerate, and is a preferred practice for fighting overgrazing. But many farmers do not have the space to rotate their grazing pastures, leading to field erosion and the sedimentation of rivers, streams and the Bay.
“We are very blessed to have a lot of room where the horses can roam,” Robert said. “Lack of space can be a limiting factor for many [horse-owners]. Overgrazing is a very common thing in the horse business, and will be hard to eliminate completely because of the way horses eat. Cows don’t eat the grass all the way down to the ground, but horses do,” he explained.
Through the efforts of programs like FSCAP and the willingness of farmers like the Butts to sign on to voluntary conservation programs, stewardship certification programs are gaining traction among the agricultural community. “Part of the effort here is not just to recognize those folks that have already done a great job, but to also provide incentive for someone to step up and put those one or two BMPs in place that they may have been missing to meet the standard,” said Talbert.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Reducing runoff from farmland has lowered pollution in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania waters, indicating a boost in on-farm best management practices could lead to improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
In a report released earlier this year, researchers with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use case studies to show that planting cover crops, managing manure and excluding cattle from rivers and streams can lower nutrient concentrations and, in some cases, sediment loads in nearby waters.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the Bay: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life, while sediment can cloud the water and suffocate shellfish. In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists make clear that putting nutrient- and sediment-reducing practices in place on farms can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in as little as one to six years.
Planting winter cover crops on farm fields in the Wye River basin, for instance, lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into local groundwater, while planting cover crops and exporting nutrient-rich rich poultry litter in the upper Pocomoke River watershed lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Eastern Shore waterway. In addition, several studies in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed that when cattle were excluded from streams, plant growth rebounded, nutrient and sediment levels declined and stream habitat and bank stability improved.
Image courtesy Chiot's Run/Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named the Bay watershed one of eight “critical conservation areas” under the new Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will bring farmers and watershed organizations together to earn funds for soil and water conservation.
In February 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014—better known as the Farm Bill—into law. Like its predecessors, this new Farm Bill funds a wide array of federal commodity, forestry, social, trade and conservation programs. Altogether, the Farm Bill authorizes nearly $1 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years, with roughly $57 billion authorized for conservation and preservation programs. But how will the law affect conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed?
The 2008 Farm Bill established the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), which dedicated $188 million to conservation practices in the Bay region. The 2014 Farm Bill eliminates the regional programs established under previous Farm Bills, including the CBWI and the Great Lakes Basin program, and consolidates 23 national conservation programs into 13. For the Bay, the most notable of these 13 programs is an innovative new initiative called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The RCPP allows qualified organizations to request funds on behalf of farmers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which oversees most of the conservation programs under the Farm Bill. These organizations then work with farmers to leverage those funds toward the implementation of conservation practices, from structures that store animal manure to fences that exclude livestock from streams. This approach not only leverages the federal cost-share funds for farmers, but it allows them to work with a wider range of non-federal partners and experts. This increases the number of “boots on the ground” engaged in conservation work, fostering new partnerships between farmers and organizations that want to help.
But how much money is available under the RCPP? The RCPP will receive up to $100 million per year, plus an additional seven percent of the funds and acres available under “covered programs.” Covered programs include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP). However, these funds are for the entire RCPP.
The NRCS will award the bulk of this money through a competitive application process at the national and state levels. The remaining 35 percent of the funds will be awarded in a similar competitive process within “critical conservation areas.” The Secretary of Agriculture can name only eight of these areas. Based on the law’s criteria, the Bay watershed will be a strong candidate, but the eight areas are yet to be determined by the USDA.
The NRCS is currently developing policies and guidelines to carry out the conservation programs under the new Farm Bill, so stakeholders should keep an eye out for announcements, workshops and other events that will explain the new programs and processes in more detail. The RCPP is a major innovation for conservation policy, but it will require increased collaboration between farmers, watershed organizations and agricultural groups to earn funds through competition.
Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.
Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.
“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”
People often feel helpless when confronting the environmental concerns that face us today. They want to know, in simple and straightforward terms, what they can do to help. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the answer lies in our work to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment into our waterways.
While we have made great strides in upgrading nutrient-removal technology at wastewater treatment plants, controlling power plant and automobile exhaust emissions, and putting conservation practices in place on area farms, we have not made as much progress in reducing stormwater runoff from homes and businesses. Rainfall continues to run across rooftops, driveways and lawns, picking up pollutants before it enters storm drains, rivers and streams. And we continue to look for ways to encourage homeowners to reduce their stormwater discharges.
Image courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Flickr
Environmental regulations have not focused on runoff from homes because these pollution sources are too small, diffuse and numerous to manage effectively and efficiently. But the Chesapeake Bay Program is developing a system that will give homeowners credit for reducing their runoff and helping their communities meet the goals of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or Bay “pollution diet.” More than 30 stakeholders worked through the Chesapeake Stormwater Network to develop this crediting program, which will respond to the needs of both homeowners and government agencies and provide an accurate mechanism for verifying residential best management practices.
Rain barrels, rain gardens and permeable pavement are just some of the tools that can help a homeowner manage runoff and add color and character to his property. But it is important for us to ensure that these practices are installed correctly to reduce pollution over time. So a guide is in production that will show homeowners how to design, construct and maintain different practices, and an online tool will allow them to add their practices to a website, where the data will be checked and pollution reductions will be calculated.
Training and certification programs are being planned. Smart phone apps are being developed. And this initiative appears to be catching on among homeowners and in communities across the watershed, where people see it as an opportunity to improve their neighborhood, increase their property values and make a positive impact on their local environment and the water quality of the Bay.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
Chesapeake Bay Program partners have improved how states track on-farm conservation, helping farmers get credit where it is due and ensuring states know what has been done to meet their pollution reduction goals.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” each state in the watershed must report their annual progress in promoting agricultural conservation. To streamline this process, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has integrated state and federal data about what conservation practices have been put in place, where. Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia used this new dataset to report their conservation practices in 2012, improving their ability to track their progress toward improving water quality in rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
While agricultural runoff is one of the watershed’s leading sources of nutrient and sediment pollution, on-farm conservation can lower the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, sand and silt washing off of farmland. Conservation tillage, cover crops and nutrient management planning can also reduce a farm’s operating costs and improve a farm’s production.
Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
Indeed, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on the impact of cropland conservation in the region showed that conservation measures—a number of them put in place voluntarily and made possible through the Farm Bill—have improved and protected water quality and soil health. Published as part of the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), the report, which uses data collected between 2003 and 2006 and in 2011, showed a five, six and eight percent drop in phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment runoff into the Bay. While Chesapeake Bay Program partners work closely with the USDA, this particular report is not part of the Bay Program's TMDL-related tracking efforts.
“The good work of Chesapeake Bay landowners has generated substantial progress in a short period of time, but more needs to be done,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a media release. “It is critical that Congress act now to pass a Farm Bill that provides the full array of programs and incentives to build on these efforts.”
Learn more about the reporting of conservation practices in the watershed or read about the impacts of conservation practices on cropland in the region.
Cover crops, streamside trees and nutrient management plans: all are exceptional ways to reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. And for father and son duo Elwood and Hunter Williams, restoring the Bay begins with conservation practices and a shift in mentality.
“We knew coming down the road that we needed to do a better job with keeping the water clean,” Hunter said. “We decided that if there was going to be a problem with the streams it wasn’t going to be us.”
Excess nutrients come from many places, including wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff and polluted air. When nitrogen and phosphorus reach waterways, they can fuel the growth of large algae blooms that negatively affect the health of the Bay. In order to reduce these impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a Bay “pollution diet,” known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Since the passing of the TMDL, many farmers in the watershed have felt the added pressure of the cleanup on their shoulders, but for the Williams family, having the foresight to implement best management practices (BMPs) just seemed like the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do.
”We don’t want to get to a point where regulations are completely out of control,” Hunter explained. “Farmers know what they’re putting on the ground so we have the ability to control it. Most people who have yards don’t have a clue what they’re putting on the ground when they use fertilizer. The difference has to be made up by the farmers because we know exactly what is going on to our soil.”
The Williams family began implementing BMPs on Misty Mountain Farm in 2006 by teaming up with the Potomac Valley Conservation District (PVCD). The government-funded non-profit organization has been providing assistance to farmers and working to preserve West Virginia’s natural resources since 1943.
The PVCD operates the Agricultural Enhancement Program (AgEP), which has steadily gained popularity among chicken farmers and livestock owners located in the West Virginia panhandle and Potomac Valley. While these two districts make up just 14 percent of West Virginia’s land mass, these regions are where many of the Bay’s tributaries begin—so it is important for area landowners to be conscious of pollutants entering rivers and streams.
AgEP is designed to provide financial aid and advice to farmers in areas that the Farm Bill does not cover. PVCD is run in a grassroots fashion, as employees collaborate with local farmers to pinpoint and meet their specific needs.
“It [AgEP] has been very well received,” said Carla Hardy, Watershed Program Coordinator with the PVCD. “It’s the local, state and individuals saying, “These are our needs and this is how our money should be spent.” Farmers understand that in order to keep AgEP a voluntary plan they need to pay attention to their conservation practices.”
Hunter admits the hardest part of switching to BMPs was changing his mindset and getting on board. Originally, Hunter was looking at the Bay’s pollution problems as a whole, but with optimistic thinking and assistance from PVCD, he realized that the best way to overcome a large problem was to cross one bridge at a time.
It wasn’t long before the Williams family started to see results: fencing off streams from cattle led to cleaner water; building barns to overwinter cows allowed them to grow an average of 75 pounds heavier than before, making them more valuable to the farm.
By using BMPs, the Williams family has set a positive example for farmers across the watershed, proving that with hard work and a ‘sky is the limit’ mentality, seemingly impossible goals can be met.
Hunter points out, “We are proud to know that if you are traveling to Misty Mountain Farm you can’t say, “Hey these guys aren’t doing their part.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
The restoration of forested areas along creeks and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed continues to decline.
Called riparian forest buffers, these streamside shrubs and trees are critical to environmental restoration. Forest buffers stabilize shorelines, remove pollutants from contaminated runoff and shade streams for the brook trout and other fish species that thrive in cooler temperatures and the cleanest waters.
While more than 7,000 miles of forest buffers have been planted across the watershed since 1996, this planting rate has experienced a sharp decline. Between 2003 and 2006, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania planted an average of 756 miles of forest buffer each year. But in 2011, the entire watershed planted just 240 miles—less than half its former average.
Farmers and agricultural landowners have been the watershed’s driving force behind forest buffer plantings, using the conservation practice to catch and filter nutrients and sediment washing off their land. But a rise in commodity prices has made it more profitable for some farmers to keep their stream buffers planted not with trees, but with crops. This, combined with an increase in funding available for other conservation practices, has meant fewer forest buffers planted each year.
But financial incentives and farmer outreach can keep agricultural landowners planting.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), for instance, has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others to implement conservation practices on Pennsylvania farms. Working to put the state’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funds to use, CBF provides farmers across the Commonwealth with technical assistance and financial incentives to plant forest buffers, often on the marginal pastureland that is no longer grazed or the less-than-ideal hayland that is rarely cut for hay.
The CBF Buffer-Bonus Program has encouraged Amish and Mennonite farmers to couple CREP-funded forest buffers with other conservation practices, said Dave Wise, Pennsylvania Watershed Restoration Manager with CBF. The reason, according to Wise? “Financial incentives … make it attractive for farmers to enroll.”
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
For each acre of forest buffer planted, CBF will provide Buffer-Bonus Program participants with up to $4,000 in the form of a “best management practice voucher” to fund conservation work. This comes in addition to CREP cost-share incentives, which fund forest buffer planting, post-planting care and annual rental fees that run from $40 to $350 per acre.
While Wise has witnessed what he called a “natural decline” in a program that has been available for more than a decade, he believes cost-share incentives can keep planting rates up, acting as “the spoonful of sugar" that encourages farmers to conserve in a state with the highest forest buffer planting rates in the watershed.
“There are few counties [in the Commonwealth] where buffer enrollments continue to be strong, and almost without exception, those are counties that have the Buffer-Bonus Program,” Wise said.
In 2007, the six watershed states committed to restoring forest buffers at a rate of 900 miles per year. This rate was incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, which calls for 14,400 miles of forest buffer to be restored by 2025. The Chesapeake Forest Restoration Strategy, now out in draft form, outlines the importance of forests and forest buffers and the actions needed to restore them.
Three Delaware towns have received grant funding and technical assistance to create habitat and improve water quality in Delaware's tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
The towns of Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel, located along the Route 13 corridor in Sussex County, have set their sights on curbing stormwater runoff to reduce the flow of nutrients and sediment into the Nanticoke River and Broad Creek.
When rainfall runs across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, it can pick up pollutants before washing down storm drains and into local waterways. By using best management practices—think rain barrels, green roofs or forested buffers along the shores of streams and rivers—to target the fastest growing source of pollution into the Bay, these Delaware towns can help position the state to meet its pollution reduction goals.
The Town of Greenwood, for instance, will restore a buffer of native vegetation along a tax ditch that drains into the Nanticoke River, establishing habitat and reducing stormwater runoff from two industrial buildings in the heart of the community.
The neighboring towns of Laurel and Bethel will develop plans to bring green infrastructure to Broad Creek, stabilizing stream banks, reducing stormwater discharge and eliminating local flooding. Bethel might even implement innovative practices in the oldest part of town, bringing permeable pavement and living shorelines to the town's historic district.
"The projects in Greenwood, Laurel and Bethel will improve the water quality of our local streams and rivers, reduce flooding and enhance the quality of life for local communities," said Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Collin O'Mara. "By ... working together, we are securing resources necessary to ensure that our waterways are safe, swimmable and fishable for current and future generations."
Funding for the Greenwood project, totaling $35,000, was awarded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.Technical assistance for the initiatives in Laurel and Bethel, valued at $100,000, was awarded through NFWF's Local Government Capacity Building Initiative. To learn more about the projects, visit the DNREC website.
The University of Maryland has received close to $700,000 in federal funding to help communities reduce stormwater runoff.
Using a software program to pinpoint pollution hot spots and an innovative brand of social marketing to boost citizen engagement, the university will embark on a multi-year project to increase the adoption of conservation practices in two watershed communities: the Wilde Lake watershed in Howard County, Md., and the Watts Branch watershed in Washington, D.C., whose waters flow into the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers, respectively.
Stormwater runoff, or rainfall that picks up pollutants as it flows across paved roads, parking lots, lawns and golf courses, is the fastest growing source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Best management practices can reduce the flow of stormwater into creeks, streams and rivers, from the green roofs that trap and filter stormwater to the permeable pavement that allows stormwater to trickle underground rather than rush into storm drains.
But best management practices cannot work without the citizens who put them into action.
"We need to work with communities, rather than take a top-down approach [to stormwater management]," said project lead and assistant professor Paul Leisnham. "For the long-term successful implementation of these practices ... we need communities to be involved."
The university has partnered with local schools, religious organizations and grassroots associations (among them the Maryland Sea Grant, the Anacostia Watershed Society and Groundwork Anacostia) in hopes of breaking down barriers to the adoption of best management practices and increasing community involvement—and thus, investment—in local, long-term environmental conservation.
From left, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, University of Maryland assistant professor Paul Leisnham and U.S. EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn M. Garvin
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin commended the project at a Bladensburg Waterfront Park event as a creative and results-driven way to reduce stormwater runoff.
"It's going to allow us to make a difference in our [local] watershed, which will make a difference in the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said.
The funding, which totaled $691,674, was awarded through the Sustainable Chesapeake Grant program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.