Pennsylvania Launches Stream Buffer Initiative

Hardwood trees grow in tubes in a riparian buffer on a farm in Dauphin County, Pa.

The majority of farms got passing grades in Pennsylvania’s first year of expanded inspections in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“Our dedication to on-the-ground best practices is moving us, farm by farm, toward increased conservation of natural resources,” said Patrick McDonnell, the state environmental protection secretary.

Pennsylvania launched the inspection program in January 2016 as part of its strategy to speed up pollution cuts in its share of the bay watershed.

The state, which includes most of the farm-rich Susquehanna River basin and some tributaries of the Potomac, is significantly behind on its cleanup goals.

Sixty-five percent of farms inspected under the new program met the manure-management planning requirements, and 63 percent were compliant on erosion and sedimentation planning.

Inspectors visited roughly 2,800 farms in the watershed between July 2016 and June 2017, including almost 2,100 relatively small farms that were inspected under the Chesapeake program.

The remaining 750 farms are large animal operations that are already inspected annually because of other regulatory requirements.

Eighty percent of those farms were found to be fully compliant with their planning requirements.

In total, the inspected farms covered 390,000 acres, almost 13 percent of the farmland in Pennsylvania’s part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The state’s goal is to inspect 10 percent of farms per year.

The initial results are encouraging, but “there’s more work yet to be done,” McDonnell said.

In most counties, conservation district staff conducted the inspections in exchange for state funding, racking up 1,600 farm visits.

DEP conducted 500 inspections in counties where conservation districts did not participate.

Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said regulators were originally unsure if farmers would buy in to the inspection strategy.

In fact, he said, few people called in about the inspections, and those who did were generally complimentary of the process.

The state had pushed for conservation districts to do the bulk of the inspections in part because of their rapport with farmers, and Redding said the inspections were designed not to be confrontational.

Inspectors wanted to see if farmers had written manure management, and agricultural erosion and sedimentation plans.

Conservation plans written by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service often qualify as the latter, said Jill Whitcomb, chief of nonpoint source pollution at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Farms were typically selected randomly, though some districts may have focused this year on particular watersheds, municipalities or operation types.

Farmers received a notice before the inspector visited, and noncompliant farms got time to write their plans and become compliant before enforcement actions were taken, Whitcomb said.

In the first year, 20 noncompliant farms were referred to DEP for the multistep enforcement process.

Only four farms were served field orders, the last step before receiving a penalty, and three of those farms have made progress toward their planning obligations.

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