Chesapeake Report Finds States Falling Short of Goals

7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

Halfway through a two-year push, Pennsylvania is meeting only three of its eight goals for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported this week.

The state has hit its goals for conservation plan implementation, barnyard runoff control and stormwater infiltration improvements, the foundation said. But it is falling short on three agricultural goals in addition to urban tree cover and wastewater benchmarks.

However, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau dispute the accuracy of some of the data on which the foundation’s report is based.

The 2013-14 plan is the second round of two-year incremental goals set by the commonwealth, the District of Columbia and the five other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Despite hitting fewer than half of its goals, Pennsylvania’s situation is not as dire as it sounds, according to Harry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania office.

Acknowledging that the state is “a little off pace” on some goals, Campbell emphasized that it still has another year to hit its goals.

The midterm report shows the Keystone State’s “opportunities” for improvement over the next year, he said.

The goals are things that Pennsylvania leaders chose, not things the Bay Foundation assigned to them, Campbell said.

Beth McGee, the foundation’s senior scientist, said it is not necessarily fair to say that Pennsylvania is doing worse than, say, Maryland, which hit its goals on six of its seven priorities.

The goals measured in the report are “only a subset of the many commitments Pennsylvania committed to,” so the state could be doing well on efforts not covered in the assessment, McGee said.

None of the states hit all of their targets, but all of them look like they should be able to hit some of their goals, she said.

One of the most unusual findings of the report is that Pennsylvania’s acres of conservation tillage decreased compared with 2011’s figure, causing it to fall 183 percent short of its two-year goal.

“Some of (the loss) may be real,” a result of former cropland being put into pasture or building development, McGee said.

The drastic variance might also be a result of inconsistent record-keeping. Farmers are only counted toward the goals when they are involved in government programs that document the progress. Voluntary implementation outside government auspices goes unrecorded, she said.

Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation underestimated conservation tillage. She said the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service showed Pennsylvania had a little more than 2 million acres of conservation tillage in 2013, far more than the 694,546-acre target in the foundation’s report.

McGee defended the numbers, saying challenges with reporting include determining how much verification of results the state wants to do, deciding how the state should collect its data and making sure the state is not double-counting farmers who are listed by both state and federal sources.

More effective reporting methods may improve the state’s score in the assessment, she said, and give a more accurate picture of what local farmers are doing to keep the watershed clean.

Pennsylvania regulators are currently working on improving the state’s data collection process, McGee said.

Witman, of the DEP, agreed, saying the agency “has commissioned transect surveys of 17 counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to better account and report this practice” for 2013.

The series of two-year, incremental goals is meant to keep states accountable, and “the process is working,” McGee said.

But Witman also pointed out that the federal Environmental Protection Agency undercounted the number of wastewater treatment plants adhering to stricter effluent standards, a nonagricultural category in the report, which led to an inaccurate score of 44 percent in the foundation’s report.

“There are a total of 142 facilities in compliance with reduced cap loads as compared to the projected 146 facilities. The department is confident Pennsylvania will meet its milestone goal as scheduled,” Witman said.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau was also upset by Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s use of “fundamentally flawed data,” according to Sam Kieffer, the bureau’s director for government affairs and communications.

“In fact, using inaccurate data and calling it sound science’ is one of the main reasons a lawsuit was filed by Farm Bureau” against the EPA in 2011, Kieffer said.

The lawsuit pushed back against an earlier settlement the EPA made with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation agreeing that the federal agency would get more involved in the bay cleanup.

Pushing the states to form short-term goals has been more effective at achieving results than having the states create grandiose long-range plans that never saw any progress, McGee, the foundation’s scientist, said.

Another thing in Pennsylvania’s favor is that it has not had to put a lot of effort into making more regulations to achieve its goals.

“Pennsylvania put a lot of emphasis on having farmers comply with existing laws,” McGee said.

Many of the laws have been around for 20 or 30 years, but making farmers aware of the requirements has helped a lot, Campbell said.

The foundation wants the bay restoration effort to provide constructive feedback to farmers, he said. He does not want to see the government using the process to penalize farmers except in egregious cases.

The pollution reduction goals the foundation chose to analyze in its report are the most cost-effective best practices, Campbell said.

The foundation recognizes that making water-quality improvements can be a burden, especially for small family farms, so the group tries to make water preservation less onerous by suggesting simple, effective practices that the farmers will be able to integrate into their daily routines, he said.

The foundation also provides education and technical tools for farmers.

McGee said that offering “creative incentives” to farmers is a key part of the foundation’s plan to help farmers contribute to the goals.

For example, the foundation offers a “buffer bonus” for farmers who install trees along their creeks to keep cows out of the water. Farmers who place forested buffers are eligible for money to put toward other conservation projects on their property.

Pennsylvania is only 17 percent of the way to its 2014 goal for forested buffers. McGee said it set an ambitious goal for the 2012 benchmark and exceeded its goal, but it needs improvement to meet this round.

McGee said that a main way farmers can aid the effort is by having conservation and manure plans —and implementing them. Pennsylvania scored just 21 percent for nutrient management.

But Witman, of DEP, said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s nutrient management numbers do not take into account the new manure management plans. Neither DEP nor EPA collects data on the manure plans, she said.

Campbell also noted that the two-year benchmarks are just a “snapshot” of the larger bay cleanup movement. Pennsylvania has made great strides to improve the Chesapeake Bay over the past quarter-century.

The state needs to continue with its current programs and focus on cleaning up small streams and creeks, which directly affect quality of life, he said.

Pennsylvania has 6,000 miles of streams impaired by nutrients and sediment, with a 10th of those miles in Lancaster County, he said.

“We do have time to take the corrective actions,” Campbell said. The 2013 assessment is better seen as a “warning call” than a browbeating, a way to show where the state needs to focus its energy over the next year.

“The goal post is in sight,” he said.

A warning call is not of much interest to Kieffer, of the Farm Bureau.

His organization would like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to give farmers more credit for their years of collaboration with state entities “to keep soil and nutrients on our land.”

“Environmental agencies and organizations issue reports that promote their cause and minimize agriculture’s environmental accomplishments, but at the same time acknowledge that water quality is improving,” he said.

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