Md. Weighs Progress in Bay Restoration Efforts

4/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

WILLIAMSPORT, Md. — Stakeholders in the ongoing effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay reviewed their progress and discussed future strategies at the first of five Watershed Implementarion Plan workshops held Monday at the Williamsport Banquet Hall.

A second workshop was held in Cantonsville Thursday, with three more workshops set for Easton on Monday, April 29; LaPlata on Tuesday, May 7; and Salisbury on Wednesday, May 15.

The all-day presentations are sponsored by the Harry Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology and supported by a grant from the Town Creek Foundation.

Speakers included representatives from the Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Planning, The Nature Conservancy and the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

“There has been quite a bit of research done that shows that our land uses, no matter what they are, contribute nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay,” said Sarah Taylor-Rogers, assistant director of the Harry Hughes Center. “This workshop, in particular, is for working with the local governments, who are the ones that have to put pedal to the metal, so to speak, to reduce the nutrients coming off the agricultural, urban and suburban areas.”

Taylor-Rogers said the state’s agricultural and forestry lands need to be retained as working lands, and that the economic viability of farmers and foresters depends on a strong environment, including bay restoration.

The Maryland WIP was filed with the Environmental Protection Agency in July 2012 and sets out an ambitious set of goals that passes its first milestone in June 2013. It mandates that 60 percent of the program will be implemented by 2017.

The EPA created the Chesapeake Bay Watershed computer model of water pollution, which simulates the transportation of nutrients to tidal waters and guides state activity.

“What we got from EPA was an overall load of 50 million pounds of nitrogen going into the bay and 20 million pounds was agriculture’s component,” said John Rhoderick, administrator of resource conservation operations for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “We are tracking that percentage and how we can reduce that load. What we try to show is that we have made significant progress and we have until 2017 to get that down to at least 40 percent of where we started.

“It’s a major component for us to address,” he said. “Clearly, when we look at the numbers and the management actions that farmers are taking, we are very pleased. Our cover crop program is in record numbers the last two years with over 50 percent more cover crops than there was in 2009. That is a huge jump.”

The current EPA computer simulation is a model that has built-in assumptions that may need adjustment.

“The current model forecasts continuing increases in poultry numbers that we are not seeing,” Rhoderick said. “There are only so many tweaks they can make to the current model. We will have input into the new model in 2017 and we have several technical experts working with the EPA’s groups. We are encouraged, but meanwhile we must deal with the current model’s forecast.”

Additionally, he said, not every farmer’s best practices are being recorded because that information is traditionally gathered through funding programs that have a tracking component in place.

“But when you look at a farm there are a lot of things that farmers do in terms of environment protection that we just don’t have a handle on,” Rhoderick said. “We are in the process of working with farmers and we are doing comprehensive inventories of practices to assess what is out there. Based upon what we have seen in a couple of counties, there are many other practices that the farmers have already installed that help us when we try to address all the water-quality concerns.”

The WIP plan has more than just the agriculture component, as point sources, storm water, septic, waste water systems and forests also contribute to the total load on the bay.

“It is this combination that was brought together with the object of working and engaging with the local jurisdictions to find better solutions,” said Lee Currey, director of the Science Services Administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment. “We try to bring up the success stories done by local governments so they can come together and learn from each other in this whole process.”

Donnell Keech, Allegany Forest Project director for the Nature Conservancy, discussed his work as part of a team in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia focused on different aspects of the Chesapeake Bay restoration.

“We have been focused on the Eastern Shore to develop science-based tools to improve the targeting and decision tools that are available to county governments, conservation districts and planners about where to put best management practices and how much of them we need to get the outcome that we need,” he said.

“When I joined the Allegany County WIP team, they wanted to plant trees but were not sure where or how. It seemed like a great opportunity to take these tools that we were developing in a more agricultural environment on the Eastern Shore and see if they can be applied to this different area with some of the same benefits in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay,” Keech said. “We are a partner who brings a lot of scientific expertise and because we are not a local government or state agency we do not have the same pressures that our partners often do. We can take a big-picture view and be more creative about looking at the full range of options that they may have.”

Jim George, program manager for water quality protection and restoration with the Maryland Department of the Environment, presented several options for the urban sectors, detailing their progress, various milestones and the tracking, reporting and estimating of load reductions. Jenn Raulin of the Department of Natural Resources presented a variety of grants and funding services for the local governmental agencies.

“We are looking for identified solutions and funding opportunities and ideas with all sectors working together,” Currey said. “The benefits and processes that we put in place have benefits both locally and downstream. This is not just for our bay but for our waters in general. This covers implementation of water treatment plants and municipal storm management, as well as what folks can do at home with rain barrels and rain harvesting. We are all in this together and we are all stewards of the watershed.”

As for farmers, Rhoderick said they are operating on a razor-thin edge. And although they have every intention of working through their stewardship, the bottom line is economics. “Can we make it affordable for them?” he said.

“We are very proud of the farming community as the farmers have stepped up to the plate,” he said. “The agricultural community in Maryland is light years ahead of the other sectors and we are very proud of where they are.”

“We can learn from everyone today,” Currey said. “There has been a lot of success with the watershed and we can take that and keep moving forward.”

One of the positive examples presented was the voluntary Antietam Watershed Plan presented by Elmer Weibley, district manager of the Washington County Soil Conservation District, and Alex Reed, a watershed specialist with the Washington County Division of Environmental Management.

“The response has been positive, especially because it wasn’t an unfunded mandate of the federal or state government,” Weibley said, explaining the advantages of a voluntary plan.

Weibley said the plan puts them in a position to apply for Nonpoint Source Program funds through the Clean Water Act, which can fund restoration projects and lead to other funding sources, like the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

“It also gives the conservation district a framework to focus our resources on our own goals, instead of goals imposed on us by other agencies,” he said.

The Antietam plan includes information kiosks for outreach and education, a pet waste program which partners with PetSmart, stream restoration projects, conservation plans for 80 percent of the farms in three subwatersheds and a landowner implementation outreach through community events.

“The Antietam Creek Watershed is still agricultural and it is our dairy watershed,” Weibley said. “Most of the dairy and ag happens in the Antietam watershed and it has also had the most development pressure since it includes the City of Hagerstown. We have that ag-urban interface going on all the time. We have a strong population of Mennonite farmers who are very committed to staying in agriculture, even to starting new dairies and at this time that is pretty rare. The next generation of Mennonite farmers are committed to the land and want to farm in this area.

“Anytime you can get involved in locally lead conservation you are so much farther ahead than when it gets mandated and regulated. The voluntary incentive-driven approach to conservation is what creates the land stewards, which is what the majority of farmers already are,” Weibley said. “By locally leading the watershed plan we are able to support our ag producers in doing what they naturally do and we can help them by getting additional resources here.”

The Antietam Watershed Plan can be found at www.conservationplace.com/Antietam%20Creek%20Plan_Final%209_17_12.pdf.

Additional WIP information concerning all 23 county-level agricultural strategies, filing milestones and other reports may be found on the Maryland Department of Agriculture website at http://mda.maryland.gov/resource_conservation/Pages/chesapeake-bay-tmdl-wip-resource-map.aspx or on the Maryland Department of the Environment website at http://tinyurl.com/WIP-Imp.


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