Officials Optimistic Farming Practices Improve Water Quality

5/25/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

DOVER, Del. — Waiting for water quality to improve can be a bit like watching the grass grow.

It can take years to notice even small improvements, but Delaware farm officials are optimistic that water quality in Delaware may be improving because of changes in farming practices.

The slow change is often linked to the speed with which groundwater moves. Groundwater can take more than three decades to reach wells or streams.

That means water coming out of the kitchen tap today might reflect farming practices from more than 30 years ago.

“It’s going to take a long time,” said Ward Sanford of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Still, Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee is optimistic that Delaware water quality is improving thanks to best management practices used by Delaware farmers.

“It appears we’re starting to pick up some improvement in water quality,” he said during a Tuesday, May 14 forum on water quality at the Delaware Department of Agriculture.

The informal symposium focused heavily on BMPs and agriculture and was held jointly by both the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Department of Agriculture.

Scientists presented water quality evidence and a handful of media were on hand to ask questions about the sometimes conflicting data.

Kee was quick to give credit to farmers after 10 to 15 years of increased awareness of BMPs. Those practices include efforts like manure sheds, buffer strips, cover crops and limiting application of poultry litter. All are designed to limit the runoff of nutrients, considered a major source of water quality degradation.

They can also help farmers save money when farmers only apply as much fertilizer as needed to produce a good crop. “Instead of applying four, five or six tons of litter, they might only apply two tons,” said Larry Towle, nutrient program management administrator for Delaware’s Agriculture Department.

Officials cautioned that it’s too early to say trends have been reversed, but it “appears” that nutrient levels in water are moving in the right direction.

Towle estimates that “80 percent” of farmers have adopted the use of voluntary BMPs, which can be used for their properties.

A synopsis of agreed, upon points from Tuesday’s session notes that “nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations and loads in surface waters are stable (and in some places decreasing) despite rapid population growth and land use changes.”

The synopsis continues “these trends reflect the impacts of best management practices employed by point sources, on-site wastewater, urban stormwater and agriculture. For more than a decade, Delaware’s agricultural community has been intensively managing nutrients. Given that agriculture comprises 35 percent of the land, and nutrient management affects almost every acre, these efforts are significant.”

“At the end of the day, I think agriculture has a good story to tell,” Kee said. “They have stepped up to the plate and been good stewards.”


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