Share Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest Steve Groff is a noted cover crop proponent from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who farms in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that also includes parts of New York, Virginia, West Virginia and most of Maryland. What happens in his watershed matters to Ohio’s farmers, whether they know it or not.“Cover crops are a part of the strategy to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Bay. In southeastern Pennsylvania in 2005, cover crops were used on 5% of farm acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Groff said. “Now there are cover crops on 18% of Chesapeake Bay region and 75% of fields in Lancaster County, Penn. are planted to cover crops.”Groff has spent many years refining his use of cover crops to maximize their benefits and profitability on his farm. In more recent years, regulations in the watershed have encouraged his neighbors to follow his example.“We do have a pollutant problem and these water quality problems are things the public can see. This shapes the public perception of agriculture. They sometimes go over the top to make things scary sounding — that is what the media does — but you have to admit there is a kernel of truth there. If we do not do something about this, we are going to be regulated out the wazoo,” he said. “Now they are using satellite imagery to monitor cover crop usage in Chesapeake Bay that is being used as a pilot program to test ground truth. They are doing this in Maryland to see if guys are really planting cover crops.”With continuing discussion about making the requirements for the Chesapeake Bay a national template, every farmer in the country needs to be carefully watching as the regulatory environment continues to evolve in the watershed.“Should we use the carrot or stick to get more cover crops? In this watershed you cannot spread manure over winter unless you have at least 25% ground cover so livestock producers have to plant cover crops,” Groff said. “We are 15 years down the road with these regulations and now there is a lot of voluntary adoption with this. We don’t want more regulations but they are probably coming. You may as well start tinkering around with this stuff now because you will probably have to be doing it some day anyway.”Josh McGrath, associate professor and soil and fertility and nutrient management specialist at the University of Maryland, said the Chesapeake Bay nutrient management strategies are far from ideal in some cases because they too often favor the politics over the reality of the situation.“Maryland is probably the most highly regulated state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which is probably the most highly regulated watershed for agriculture in the country,” McGrath said. “The Maryland Water Quality Improvement Act was passed in 1998 and the first thing that it did was mandate that farmers could not exceed the fertility recommendations of University of Maryland Extension. That was not something that we supported in Extension. All farmers in Maryland now have to have nutrient management plans that cover N and P.”The emphasis on mandates is a real concern for McGrath and others, because, while these mandated practices may be the right fit for some agricultural situations, they may be the wrong fit for others. The net result is that mandates can actually hurt water quality improvement efforts.“What we have done is turn the clock back in some situations. Agriculture has been progressively moving forward with technology that allows us to be more site specific,” McGrath said. “Some of the regulations, like mandating the incorporation of manure, may be fine on the coastal plain where it is flat, but in western Maryland with steep slopes and highly erodible soil, no–till was dominant. We’ve just turned back the clock to the 1970s by having these incorporation regulations across the board. Blanket regulations are moving us backwards with regard to site specificity.”In his paper from early 2015,“Implementation of agricultural phosphorus management policy in Maryland” Frank J. Coale, a professor at the University of Maryland, outlined the evolution of the growing regulatory environment faced by farmers in Maryland.“Beginning in the late 1980s, the State of Maryland adopted various policies and developed voluntary agricultural nutrient management programs aimed at reducing P loading of surface waters. In swift response to a popularized Chesapeake Bay fish kill during the summer of 1997…the State of Maryland passed the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, which phased in mandatory N and P-based nutrient management planning regulations for Maryland farmers. The P management provisions of these aggressive regulations were fully implemented by 2005,” Coale said in the paper. “In an effort to further alleviate water quality impairments and accelerate reductions of P inputs to the Chesapeake Bay from agricultural sources, President Obama issued Executive Order 13508 in May 2009 that declared the Chesapeake Bay a ‘national treasure’ and ushered in a new era of federal oversight and accountability. In 2010, under the existing provisions of the Federal Clean Water Act of 1992, the U.S. EPA developed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits for P entering the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL prescribed the amount of P input that can be tolerated by the Bay ecosystem and not result in impaired water quality. A 2025 deadline was established by which time each of the Chesapeake Bay watershed states will be legally obligated to achieve the TMDL P load reductions necessary to alleviate water quality impairments. By 2025, total P loading to the Chesapeake Bay must be less than 14.5 million pounds P per year and P loading from Maryland’s tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay must be no greater than 2.8 million pounds P per year. The TMDL implementation plan allows for half of Maryland’s total load, or 1.4 million pounds P per year, to originate from agricultural sources. In order to achieve the 2025 TMDL mandate, overall P loading from Maryland tributaries will need to be reduced by 15% and P loading from agricultural sources will need to be reduced by 12%, relative to today’s estimated loading rates.”As this model for addressing water quality inches closer to being implemented nationwide, the American Farm Bureau Federation and many others filed friend-of-the-court briefs last month urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments on the EPA’s plans for the Chesapeake Bay water quality “blueprint.”Filers included 92 members of Congress, 22 states, forestry groups represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, and a broad cross-section of the U.S. economy represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business.“The fact that so many voices are being raised in support of Supreme Court review shows the broad and severe threat that EPA’s action here poses nationwide,” said Bob Stallman, AFBF president. “EPA has asserted powers that do not appear in any law written by Congress, and it has done so in the context of an iconic national treasure, hoping that will inoculate its power grab in the courts. We have faith that the nation’s highest court will see this for what it is and hold EPA accountable to stay within its statutory authority.”Despite aggressive new commitments and water quality achievements by the six states in the Bay watershed in the mid-2000s, the EPA asserted federal control over the Chesapeake Bay recovery in its 2010 “blueprint.” The new federal plan effectively gives EPA the ability to function as a super-zoning authority over local and state governments — dictating where homes can be built, where land can be farmed, and where commercial development can occur, AFBF said.If carried out, the plan could impose tens of billions of dollars in direct costs — with unknown economic impacts on local communities and economies. AFBF contends that it also denies state and local governments and businesses the flexibility to adapt to new circumstances, instead locking in limits that can quickly become outdated but can only be revised by EPA.To date, lower courts upheld EPA’s blueprint on the theory that it furthers the water quality goals of the Clean Water Act — despite the absence of words in the statute authorizing such federal action. A significant issue presented for the Supreme Court is the degree to which courts should defer to broad agency interpretations of their statutory power.“The broad support for the Farm Bureau petition shows that deep concerns about the Bay blueprint go far beyond agriculture and far beyond the Bay region,” said Ellen Steen, AFBF General Counsel. “Members of Congress, states and business groups recognize that this illegal framework will be imposed throughout the country unless the Court intervenes. Given the enormous social and economic consequences, not to mention the grave questions about federalism and deference to agency overreaching, this is a case that cries out for Supreme Court review.”Maybe it is time to schedule a trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This is the second in a series of stories taking a look at the some of the nation’s water quality issues.