UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – The manager of Clagett Farm strides across a large pasture, expertly avoiding cow dung. As if accustomed to the drill, roughly 45 hungry cows follow closely behind.
“You see this section?” Michael Heller asks, pointing to the area where the cows had grazed. “See how much they grazed it down? It’s almost like a lawn mower came in here and mowed it down.”
But the grass won’t get eaten down to its roots – which would create bare spots and foster soil erosion – thanks to a process Heller employs called rotational grazing. The farm, owned and operated by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, serves as a model of how best management practices such as rotational grazing can be used to improve water quality.
It’s one of many voluntary practices recommended for farmers by the state to minimize harmful nutrient runoff into rivers and streams feeding the Chesapeake Bay.
With traditional grazing, cows are allowed to graze freely through in an open pasture. The cows will eat their favorite types of grasses down to the roots, avoiding the grass they do not like. To grow the grass back, farmers often apply fertilizers and herbicides.
Heller instead sections off the pasture on Clagett Farm, forcing the cows to eat all types of grass. The cows are then moved to a new section when the grass has been eaten to about 2 inches high.
And by only using the cows’ natural waste to fertilize each section, Heller explained, Clagett Farm has eliminated the use of fertilizers.
In general, agricultural runoff has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the leading contributors of pollution in the bay.
Though the state encourages farmers, through subsidies and grants, to use best management practices, the law does not require them.
“The only requirement that a farmer has in a regulatory context is that every farmer who has over 10 acres and/or generates more than $25,000 in revenue has to have a certified nutrient management plan,” said Dr. Russell B. Brinsfield, director of the Wye Research and Education Center at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources said.
The plan, certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, has been required since 1998. It sets recommendations for the amount of fertilizer a farmer can apply to a crop and when, Brinsfield said.
In addition to raising 65 cows, Clagett Farm grows 56 types of fruits and vegetables. The farm plants cover crops, such as rye and clover, on unused land during the off seasons, Heller said. Cover crops soak up excess nutrients that remain in the soil after seasonal plants, like strawberries and lettuce, have been harvested.
During the spring, the cover crops are tilled into the soil, eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers, he said.
“It’s one of the most effective best management practices that we have,” Brinsfield said.
To further reduce runoff, Clagett Farm does not plant crops on hills, Heller said. The steep land, susceptible to soil erosion, is covered with permanent vegetation–grass and clover.
On this morning, Gail Taylor and five other Clagett Farm employees are kneeling, pulling weeds out of soil, rather than spraying. “On conventional farms they would just go out in a big tractor with herbicide and spray the heck out of all the fields and try to kill everything with chemicals,” Taylor said.
The costs associated with using best management practices, such as planting cover crops or switching to rotational grazing, can be a financial burden on farmers since their profit margin isn’t great, Brinsfield said.
However, the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program provides farmers with up to 87.5 percent of the cost to install conservation methods, said Julie Oberg, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
And the federal farm bill was amended in 2008 to include funding specifically for these types of conservation practices. There are currently 30 current best management practices eligible for these grants, Oberg said.
Heller is proud of the work he does.
“The wonderful thing about all this is it’s using ecological principals in nature itself,” said Heller. “It works for the environment because it protects the bay.”
–by Rabiah Burks
If rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed were healthy, they could help remove excess nutrients, which is considered a key component of restoring the bay to health. However, many of the bay’s rivers are not healthy and are themselves in need of restoration.
Dr. Margaret A. Palmer and J. David Allan, in an article published in the Winter 2006 journal of the National Academy of Science, defined river restoration as the repairing of waterways that can no longer perform their essential ecological and social functions, including:
1) mitigating floods
2) providing clean drinking water
3) removing excess nutrients
4) supporting fisheries and wildlife
Two additional benefits of healthy streams are that they can increase property values and serve as a hub for recreation, Palmer and Allen said.
Their article, titled “Restoring Rivers,” reported that more than one-third of river in the United States were impaired or polluted, including those running into the Chesapeake. In 2005, scientists determined that the “dead zones” covering nearly one-third of the Chesapeake Bay were a result of excess levels of nutrients and sediments from its rivers, Palmer and Allan reported.
How did the Chesapeake’s streams and rivers get so polluted? What happened to damage them so badly that they lost their ability to perform the essential ecological functions defined by Palmer and Allan?
Palmer and Allan provided multiple historical reasons. Below are a few:
1) Population growth – people like to live and work near water, causing many industrial plants and cities to grow around them.
2) Historically, the nation’s waterways have been a dumping ground for waste and raw sewage.
3) Removal of trees and wetlands to make way for buildings and transportation.
4) The building of dams.
5) Paving of streams.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently asked the federal government to “lead the Chesapeake Bay restoration by example” by adopting recommendations for nutrient reduction on their own lands, according to an article written by the Associated Press.
“Federal agencies own nearly 8 percent of the watershed’s land, making it one of the largest land owners in the watershed,” wrote Alex Dominguez, staff writer for Associated Press.
Most stories about who is responsible for polluting the Chesapeake Bay tend to point to farmers, developers and ordinary citizens. Rarely do people think of the federal government as a bay polluter, not just through lack of enforcement of regulations or funding allocation, but through management of its own farmlands.
It is easy to remain skeptical of President Obama’s the Executive Order requiring all government agencies to do what they can to help restore the bay, but this AP story, along with others, suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency is making an attempt to curb pollution of the Chesapeake Bay in new ways.
The Chesapeake Bay’s waters are constantly contaminated by runoff from both storm-water and agriculture, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission has reported that curbing runoff is one of the most cost effective ways of cleaning the bay.
Yet Maryland lawmakers apparently have agreed to a compromise between builders and environmentalists that will weaken, at least slightly, the state’s new storm-water regulations. The compromise would allow some developments that were already in the pipeline to proceed under the state’s existing storm-water requirements, which are less stringent than the new ones, according to a report by the Baltimore Sun’s Tim Wheeler.
Wheeler reports that the compromise likely will head off more serious blows to the new storm-water rules that had been looming in the Maryland legislature, including a proposal to delay their implementation for up to a decade
Yet it appears there still will be some delays in curbing storm-water pollution, because the compromise will “grandfather” in some development projects and thus exempt them, at least for now, from the tougher new storm-water rules.
Which raises the question, how long will restoring the Chesapeake BayWtake? Lawmakers at one time set 10-year benchmarks for significantly improving the bay’s health. However, after those benchmarks proved to be ineffective because lawmakers failed to meet them, officials recently switched to two-year increments.
The idea seemed to be to hold themselves more accountable –except, it seems, when it comes to storm-water runoff regulation.
Broken Promises on the Bay is a great read for those interested in learning about the history of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Though published in 2008, it still has relevance today.
The article delves into the political side of the cleanup by raising a few pressing concerns:
1) It questioned the government’s commitment to clean up the bay because some analysts found that some reports presented a rosier picture of the bay’s progress than the actual evidence supported.
2) It discussed the government’s failure to create legislation that would address major Chesapeake Bay pollutants.
3) It noted that the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania met twice and vowed to clean up the Bay — once in 1987, again in 2000. (Last year was the third time the governors came together to vow to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.)
The 2007 GAO’s report on the bay also discussed the issue of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s credibility in reporting on the true state of the Bay’s progress.
The reports also discussed the fact that the Chesapeake Y2K outlined over 101 commitments that the Chesapeake Bay Program was expected to address, some of which the authors knew the program was not going to able to address.
Since then officials have pared down the list of commitments. Yet they still have not achieved the majority of their goals.
There are eleven federal agencies, three states and the District of Columbia providing funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. This combination raises a few questions:
1) How many people rely on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup for employment?
2) How much money is distributed in grants, and initiatives to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay?
3) If the Chesapeake Bay were to ever become healthy and vibrant, how many people would be out of a job?
The 2008 federal Farm Bill authorized the Department of Agriculture to allocate $188 million in assistance to farmers over four years in order to address the top cause of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay — agricultural runoff.
In 2009, the first year of this four-year program, nearly $23 million was released for this purpose, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. Funds were allocated to each of the watershed states for a variety of agricultural conservation practices.
The funding seems to be a result of changes to the federal Farm Bill that the Chesapeake Bay Commission proposed to Congress in 2007. In a report titled “2007 Federal Farm Bill: Concepts for Conservation Reform in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” the Chesapeake Bay Commission asked Congress to adopt several recommendations for the upcoming renewal of the farm bill. The authors reported that increasingly farmers were being asked to support and implement practices outside of their financial capabilities. The commission suggested that the Farm Bill should provide funding to help alleviate these costs.
In prior reports, the commission had concluded that if certain agricultural practices were implemented, it could reduce the $19 billion price tag for a bay clean-up originally outlined in “Cost Of A Clean Bay.” The authors of that report wrote that the most cost effective ways of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay involved changes to agricultural practices.
The 2008 Farm Bill calls for the $188 million to go to “Conservation Activities,” which are defined as “conservation systems, practices, or management measures designed to address a resource concern.” However, the bill doesn’t specify which conservation practices the money will fund.
On its Web site, Chesapeake Bay Program itemizes the types of agricultural conservation practices that are most common. The site lists these practices:
Nutrient management planning- plans designed to optimize crop production while reducing the amount of agricultural runoff.
Cover crops- certain crops that can be planted during the off seasons to soak up excess nutrients.
Animal and poultry litter reduction– strategies include proper ways of applying manure to croplands, developing manure-storage facilities and keeping livestock away from streams
Grass and forested buffers– program for planting grass and trees along farm fields and pastures
Conservation tillage– systems for leaving more areas of farm fields covered with crops or vegetation.
As the costs of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay continue to rise, it has become increasingly important for the public to know where the money comes from, how much more is needed and how it has been allocated.
In 2003 the Chesapeake Bay Commission estimated that it would cost nearly $19 billion to restore the Bay by the end of the decade. With about $6 billion committed by various governments at that time, the commission projected a financial shortfall of $12.8 billion that would have to be raised.
The estimates, contained in a 2003 report titled “The Cost of a Clean Bay,” were based on the projected amount needed to achieve the 100-plus goals that Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to when they signed the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which spelled out goals to be met by 2010.
According to the most recent Government Accountability Office report on the Chesapeake Bay, released in 2008, $3.7 billion in direct funding and $1.9 billion in indirect funding was provided to restoring the bay between 1995 and 2004.
In 2005, the Chesapeake Bay Commission published another report outlining ways to restore the bay with limited funding. However, the commission did not specify a new amount needed to restore the Bay.
In short, the states have allocated nowhere near the amount estimated to be needed to restore the Bay.
Funding for bay clean-up efforts has come from a variety of sources. The Chesapeake Bay Program specifically is funded by eleven federal agencies, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The federal agencies are the Army, Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Farm Services Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Navy/Marine Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Chesapeake Bay Commission notes that funds are allocated into five categories– water quality protection and restoration; sound land use; vital habitat protection and restoration; stewardship and community engagement; living resource protection and restoration. Programs in each include:
- Water quality protection and restoration covers areas such as nutrients and sediment and other pollutants. Most of the funding spent so far has gone to water quality protection.
- Sound land use encompasses items such as development, transportation, and land conservation.
- Stewardship and community engagement includes partnerships, education and outreach.
- Living resource protection and restoration deals mainly with species management such as oysters, fish and crabs.
- Lastly, vital habitat protection and restoration covers items such as aquatic vegetation, watershed, wetlands and forests.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley recently picked up an early endorsement for his 2010 reelection campaign from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. The group cited his record on climate change, the Chesapeake Bay and other environmental issues.
Cindy Schwartz , the organization’s director Cindy Schwartz told the Baltimore Sun, “It seemed clear to us that no one was going to run with a better environmental record.”
With the November election still many months away, it’s early in the political season, and it will be interesting to see how all the candidates tackle the issue of the Chesapeake Bay’s health.
Billions have been spent on the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay over the course of 26 years, and the bay doesn’t appear to be any cleaner today than it was when the clean-up started.
Now with state budgets reeling from the recession, some people have argued that more attention and money should be placed on job creation and strengthening the economy than on the Chesapeake Bay. Under pressure from environmentalists and the federal government, the bay watershed states are making an effort accelerate the process of reaching the Chesapeake Bay’s restoration goals by 2020.
Yet environmentalists have argued that stricter laws and regulation are needed to improve the Bay’s health.
Is there a candidate out there who would create such laws?
What do you think? Will O’Malley’s environmental record be enough to re-elect him this year? Is the Chesapeake Bay too high on his agenda?