Bay Report Highlights Problems With Data

7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Regional Editor

While the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s latest report on two-year milestones submitted by states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed shows mixed results, some state officials aren’t happy with what they say is questionable data being used to assess practices on the ground.

“We thought it was an incomplete report in many ways,” said Russ Baxter, Chesapeake Bay coordinator for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, who spoke by phone earlier this week.

The foundation, which worked with the Choose Clean Water Coalition, released its preliminary assessment of two-year milestones for the six states in the bay watershed on Monday.

The Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, established in 2010, requires each state in the bay watershed — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia — to set two-year goals for implementation of various practices that would achieve nutrient reductions in the bay.

Beth McGee, senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the report focused on a handful of practices each state had identified in its 2012-13 milestones. It then graded the progress each state was making toward achieving each individual goal.

In Maryland, for example, the state got good reviews for exceeding its goal for number of acres in cover crops and grass buffers as well as number of animal manure management structures on farms. But it was woefully behind in the amount of acres under nutrient application management.

Virginia got good reviews for the amount of acres farmers had in forest buffers and acres of streams fenced off from farms. But the report showed the state falling well short of its goal for number of acres in continuous no-till and acres in grass buffers.

Delaware and West Virginia also saw mixed results.

“It really reflects what’s important in those states. They might have looked at pollution reductions, practices at the end of the day that would result in the most significant nutrient reductions. Perhaps they are important from a policy perspective. It was designed to be tailor made to the states they were working with,” McGee said.

But Baxter said the report painted an unfair picture of Virginia’s progress towards meeting its ag nutrient reduction goals, since the assessment focuses on just four of a total of 40 practices the state has identified that could help farmers achieve nutrient reductions on the farm.

“We didn’t think it frankly gave the public a complete picture of the programs and practices we have to meet our milestone commitments,” Baxter said, adding that he also questioned the methodology the foundation used for calculating its data.

The report shows the state actually losing ground in the number of acres in grass buffers along with acreage in continuous no-till. But Baxter said there have been problems in the reporting of grass buffer acres and that continuous no-till doesn’t get represented well in the current models used to calculate nutrient load reductions to the bay.

The state’s approach with farmers, he said, gives farmers the flexibility to apply what practices they feel will work best for their particular operation.

He also said the state fared well in the Environmental Protection Agency’s own recent reassessment of its two-year milestones.

“We based our milestones on what we believed was possible. We haven’t changed our views on that,” he said. “We’re feeling pretty good about the progress we’ve made.”

Jennifer Walls, a principal planner with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, questioned the data used to calculate the number of acres the state currently has under nutrient application management. While the report shows the state -80 percent towards its goal of 197,553 acres under nutrient application management, Walls said the number is incorrect, given the fact that under state law, all farmers applying nutrients on 10 acres or more, including manure, must get a nutrient management plan.

McGee said the foundation is well aware of data limitations in the current models used to calculate nutrient loads to the bay. But the fact that states are being held to a higher level of accountability in the first place, she said, is a game-changer from before, when the bay cleanup was largely a voluntary approach.

“Even though we have concerns about it, it’s the process that we have in place. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than every other place in the country,” she said.

John Rhoderick, administrator of operations for the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection’s office of resource conservation, said the key to getting accurate data from farms is actually going out and seeing what’s happening on farms and recording it.

The current EPA model used to calculate nutrient loadings to the bay only counts practices farmers got government help to put in, leaving behind a potential slew of practices farmers have paid on their own dime.

Rhoderick said the state has a robust tracking and verification system in place to count and verify practices paid for by the government, along with a conservation tracker designed to track and document all activity on the ground.

“It’s not this perception that farmers don’t care. They’ve actually done a great deal already,” Rhoderick said, adding that by 2017, when 60 percent of pollution controls must be in place, EPA is expected to release an updated bay model, which he believes will better reflect conservation practices on the ground.

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