EWG: Mandatory Controls on Agriculture Needed to Restore Chesapeake Bay

by Yee Huang

September 10, 2009

On Tuesday the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report on the status of state and federal agriculture policies for five Chesapeake Bay watershed states: Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia.  The report focuses on agriculture policies that impact water quality and highlights a gaping hole in the regulation of animal-based operations. Past and ongoing efforts to improve the water quality in the Bay have focused on agriculture, where pollution control measures are fairly cost-effective (compared to wastewater treatment or stormwater runoff, for example). While these measures have reduced some of the nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment pollution in the Bay, the agriculture sector still contributes the largest share of pollution: 42 percent of the nitrogen, 45 percent of the phosphorous, and 60 percent of the sediment.

For the report, EWG obtained data both on the number of permitted operations and animals covered by the federal and state permitting programs and from the 2007 Agriculture Census. The numbers of unpermitted dairy, beef, and swine agricultural operations are astonishing: in these five states, less than 2 percent of operations have either federal or state permits. This 2 percent covers a mere 35 percent of these animals. The permit rates for chicken operations are much higher: around 7 percent of the poultry operations are permitted, which covers 80 percent of the chickens. Even more astonishing, EWG had to use census data because “state program managers were unaware of the total operations and animals in their respective states or how many operations were eligible for a permit.”

The report finds that voluntary measures are not working for two main reasons: the farms that cause much of the pollution simply do not participate in the voluntary programs and the perennial lack of funding for these voluntary programs fails to cover the geographic areas and agriculture operations that are responsible for much of the pollution. Mandatory regulations of these operations are needed. President Obama recognized the need earlier this year with the executive order on restoring the Chesapeake Bay, and Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is moving forward with a discussion draft for a Chesapeake Bay Reauthorization bill.  But the EWG report notes that federal action alone is inadequate: the states must demonstrate the commitment and political will needed to restore and preserve the Bay.

EWG says this report is the beginning of a longer investigation into the actual effectiveness of these state and federal regulations. They're asking smart questions and finding unsettling answers.

Tagged as: chesapeake bay
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