Stand Our Ground: Chesapeake Bay

Frequently asked questions conerning Senate Bill 1816

1. Why are farmers opposing Senate Bill 1816, the Chesapeake Clean Water and Restoration Act of 2010?

Virginia farmers, like everyone, want the Chesapeake Bay to be clean and pristine. And we’ve done more than our fair share to help protect it over the past decade. But more needs to be done by everyone.

Unfortunately, the cure proposed in S. 1816 is a flawed solution. It unfairly blames agriculture for more than 50 percent of all excess nutrients reaching the bay. And it ignores the negative economic and social byproducts of essentially putting the Environmental Protection Agency in charge of every land-use decision within the bay watershed.

This legislation would put the federal government in the position to override every local zoning decision and to second-guess every state environmental regulation. Virginia’s environmental regulations are already stricter than EPA standards, and regulations on top of regulations do not lead to a cleaner bay. They only lead to unrealized goals and broken promises the very disappointments S. 1816 proposes to cure.

The bill is also flawed because it relies on a computer model that does not account for extensive voluntary clean-up efforts Virginia farmers already have put into place. Just like a GPS device that has outdated maps, this flawed model is skewing the information state and federal government regulators are using to justify the need for increased regulations on farmers.

2. Why shouldn’t the federal government crack down on farmers?

What the average person may not realize is that farmers have been making great strides in reducing runoff for decades in Virginia and other bay states. From 1989 to 2008, 705 stream banks in Virginia were improved to reduce erosion and protect water quality. Farmers paid an average of $1,600 for each of these projects, with the state paying the balance from cost-share funds. Of course, much more needs to be done. But the average cost of each stream bed improvement project is about $4,100 and is rising.

S. 1816 doesn’t provide new money for the clean-up effort. All the dollars mentioned in the bill are already allocated under the 2008 Farm Bill. Without any new federal money, the cost of complying with these regulations will be forced down onto local governments and landowners.

For 24 years Virginia has acknowledged the efforts of individual farm families in improving water quality on their property by honoring them with a Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Farm Award or, if the farm is outside the bay watershed, a Virginia Clean Water Farm Award. Since that program began, 1,118 Virginia farms have been honored for implementing best management practices to protect water quality.

These farms and many others already have conservation practices in place, doing their job to protect water quality. More federal regulations could be counter-productive, as they’d force farmers to consider whether it was worth the time and expense of complying with two sets of regulations.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 14 percent of tillable farmland and 20 percent of all agricultural land in bay states was converted to another use between 1987 and 2007. During that same period, the bay watershed lost 41 percent of its farms. These changes occurred despite acknowledgement by all parties that agriculture and forestry are the best possible land uses for protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

3. What are farmers specifically doing right now to clean up the bay?

Farmers are planting cover crops to slow or stop soil erosion, putting vegetative buffers like grass and trees between fields and waterways, covering manure piles with storage sheds, applying manure only according to nutrient management plans, and fencing livestock out of rivers and streams.

Many farmers have been taking these steps with only a fraction of what is needed from state or federal cost-share money. Farmer demand continues to outpace the funding levels.

A 2009 Financial Needs Assessment Study by the Department of Conservation and Recreation concluded that $27.4 million is needed for Virginia’s agricultural best management cost-share program for the current fiscal year in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That was before additional federal mandates currently being proposed in Congress, and before cost-share funding fell $20 million short due to the economic recession.

4. What do farmers propose to do to clean up the bay?

Farmers support a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced by Reps. Timothy Holden of Pennsylvania and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, that really addresses what needs to be done to advance the cause of cleaning up the bay.

That legislation would force federal agencies to develop more accurate models for where future nutrient control efforts are needed. It would ask farmers to develop conservation plans, plan a timetable for implementing them, and let them achieve that goal without onerous federal oversight.

These plans would be specific to their individual farms, so they would have maximum impact. This legislation is a familiar approach to farmers. It does not set unrealistic deadlines, and it would effectively pick up the smaller farm operations that currently do not have to follow conservation regulations.

5. What’s really needed to clean up the bay?

Patience and money.

Studies have shown that the sediment and nutrients reaching the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries today were probably a result of farming practices and economic development that occurred during our grandparents’ lives. Since it takes decades for change to occur in the Chesapeake Bay, it’s only good policy to allow decades for improvements to happen.

6. Why should I be concerned about this if I do not live or farm within the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

If you live and/or farm outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed, you could be affected by S. 1816 just the same. EPA administrators have publicly stated that this legislation would serve as the roadmap for the regulation of any other watershed nationwide.

It also would establish new standards to regulate air quality that would affect everyone, regardless of whether they farm.
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