Chesapeake Bay water clean-up model: What Midwest farmers learned

Chesapeake Bay water clean-up model: What Midwest farmers learned

EPA's Chesapeake Bay water clean-up model also would impact crop operations, Illinois soybean farmers discover. (Part 2 of 3)

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one, Chesapeake Bay regs would 'flood' Midwest farms and part three, Chesapeake model: Who'll pay for Mississippi River's clean-up?


As reported last week, Illinois Soybean Association's Production Committee of five farmers returned home somewhat spooked by their fact-finding mission to Eastern Shore Maryland and Delaware. They learned that EPA's Chesapeake Bay (clean up) model now being tightened down is likely be the Mississippi Basin model.

That warning came from Richard Wilkins, first vice president of the American Soybean Association, and a Greenwood, Del., farmer.

MANURE SPREADING: To meet the Chesapeake Bay model's WIP goals for Maryland, fall-applied poultry litter is allowed only on cover crop ground.

And, the Midwest farmers learned that Maryland requires an extensive nutrient management plan to be submitted to the state for every farm – with or without livestock. Rules were tightened on manure applications. For example, cover crops are required for any fall manure application.

Confidentiality of NMP records is constantly tested by public information requests. However, Maryland guarantees confidentiality for three years.

Any manure or nutrients imported or exported off the farm must be documented in the plan. All NMPs will be audited every three years.

Related: Water quality on the farm: Regulations have cost implications

Donald Guinnip, chairman of the ISA's production committee from Marshall, Ill., noted that they would like to keep future Illinois' nutrient management programs voluntary. But he asked: "How much progress have you made?"

Bob Kratochvil, University of Maryland Extension agronomist, responded: "We weren't sure we were making progress until we moved to mandatory."

FARMER'S IMAGE CHANGED: When first elected to public office in 1982, Ag Secretary Bartenfelder said: "If you talked about being a farmer, people saw you as a person of integrity. Now, I'm asked if I'm one of the polluters of the Bay."

"The main difference between voluntary and mandatory," added Richard Wilkins, "was requiring hiring of a certified consultant to develop the plans." Cost of preparing NMPs range between $4 to $8 an acre.

Impact of quick-changing public opinion

The need for those plans stemmed from a fast-changing public perception that began with a 1998 Pfiesteria organism outbreak associated with algae blooms that secreted fish-killing toxins and caused human rashes. Agriculture's nitrogen and phosphorus pollution contribution quickly became a political liability, as Maryland Ag Secretary Joe explained to the ISA team.

Related: Pennsylvania responds to EPA's Chesapeake Bay 'ante up' criticism

"Once public perception changes, the issues become more political," he noted. Then it's a short jump to statutes.

FAVORS VOLUNTARY APPROACH: While favoring voluntary nutrient management plans, Donald Guinnip didn't receive assurances that he was looking for that it would succeed in the Mississippi Basin.

"We don't want to make policies today that will inhibit food production 20 to 30 years from now," added Delaware Ag Secretary Ed Kee. "Some but not all environmentalists understand the logic that farms are better for the environment than 150 houses and that food production is also a high priority."

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Excessive nitrogen losses via surface runoff and tile have been an issue in both the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. With poultry litter pushing Delmarva soil P tests off-scale and N well beyond crop needs, nutrient management plans became necessary to tie manure application to crop nutrient needs.

Between three to four tons of poultry litter, for instance, meets N needs of 150-bushel corn, explained Kratochvil. But it supplies three to four times the crop's P needs. That brought on development of a phosphorus management tool and mandatory P-based nutrient management plans. In brief, it would ban P applications on soils with P tests above 500 parts per million.

Maryland and Delaware heavily invested in on-farm research and education focusing on best management practices such as buffer zone setbacks and cover crops. Maryland, alone, has a $22 million annual funding commitment to pay farmers for planting cover crops on 478,000 acres. Payments average about $50 an acre, reported Royden Powell, Maryland's assistant ag secretary.

Related: Water Works lawsuit will slow progress on water quality

The state also commits $1.1 million to a multi-state manure transport program, moving poultry litter to farms that can use the "high-test" P and K. The Delmarva's poultry industry also provides $600,000 in match money, covering up to 50% of transport costs.

"We're making progress in agriculture's sector," Powell told the ISA members. "We're seeing N and P levels gradually falling to meet EPA's watershed implementation plan goals." Then he added, "urban and suburban storm water sector pollution is still increasing, and they're still concerned about costs being shifted to taxpayers."

New regulatory wave tackles old P science

Soluble P is a relatively new term, as the ISA team discovered. "Old school" science long suggested that phosphorus would be tied up by soils, and that it wouldn't be a problem if erosion were controlled.

"New school" science, however, has proven that once soils reach high P concentrations, soluble P begins moving through subsurface ground water hydrology. As Kratochvil explained, on poorer soils, coastal plains and higher water tables, this risk is well documented.

"That movement," he added, "is very slow. It may take 20, 30 or 40 years to see the impact of reducing soil P in ground water finding its way to the Bay."

Pennsylvania clean-up not so fast

For insight on the Chesapeake clean-up effort is going in Pennsylvania, the Bay's biggest agricultural state, click on EPA's recent PA Animal Agriculture Assessment. noted 13,782 animal agriculture operations located within its share of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and 21,757 animal operations including contiguous counties.

While EPA acknowledged administrative and operational challenges associated with implementing nutrient and sediment reduction-related programs for this number of animal agriculture operations, the environmental agency implied that the state's failures to meet TMDL goals and WIPs move them one step close to EPA-imposed backstops.

For details, click on EPA's Chesapeake Bay 'Backstops' Would Kill Many Small Farms

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