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Exposed: Farm Lobby's Purchased "Science" Aims to Halt Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

Goodlatte During a hearing before a U.S. House agriculture subcommittee today, farm industry advocates hammered EPA to try to force the agency to delay or drop its new pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay.  

“Facts really do matter, but EPA doesn’t take them into consideration,” claimed Carl Shaffer, an American Farm Bureau Federation board of directors member, during the hearing.

His organization recently filed a lawsuit to try to block EPA’s new pollution “diet” (or Total Maximum Daily Load) needed to restore water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. And the farm lobby’s allies in the U.S. House (led by Congressman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, pictured above) voted to strip all EPA funding next year for implementing these limits.

So, what’s behind this assertion -– repeated several times during today’s hearing -- that the EPA has its facts wrong with regard to agricultural pollution?

Well, back in December, a consulting firm called LimnoTech issued a report called “Comparison of Draft Load Estimates for Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed”  that criticized the computer model that EPA used to develop the new pollution limits.

You should know, right off the bat, that the LimnoTech report was bankrolled by the same agribusiness lobby that is trying to stop the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. The report was released by the Agricultural Nutrient Policy Council,  which is chaired by a staff member at the American Farm Bureau Federation, and includes members from the Fertilizer Institute, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Corn Growers Association, and the Agribusiness Retailers.

In other words, not exactly the clean water alliance.

The LimnoTech report compared the Chesapeake Bay Program watershed model (used by EPA to create the new pollution limits) to the first draft of a model used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project, and concludes that the differences between the two models undermines the credibility of the EPA pollution limits.

That claim is “totally without merit….like comparing apples to oranges,” according to an analysis of the LimnoTech report by Dr. Beth McGee, Senior Scientist for the Chesaspeake Bay Foundation. “Not only is the Chesapeake Bay Program Watershed Model a fully valid basis for the (EPA pollution limits), the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) report reaffirms the need for agriculture to do far more to reduce its water quality impacts.”

Dr. McGee dismantles the farm lobby’s misleading claims, and exposes them for the delay tactics they really are.

Copied below is her full analysis:

THE LIMNOTECH REPORT: 
A FAULTY AND MISLEADING DISTRACTION

Beth McGee, Ph. D
Senior Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

In December 2010, the Agricultural Nutrient Policy Council (ANPC) released a report, prepared by LimnoTech, entitled “Comparison of Draft Load Estimates for Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”  The ANPC is chaired by the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Director of Regulatory Services, Don Parrish. Other steering committee members include: The Fertilizer Institute, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Corn Growers Association and the Agribusiness Retailers Association.

The LimnoTech report levied criticisms at the computer model used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop the Chesapeake Bay ‘pollution diet’ or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).  Specifically, the report compared the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) Partnership’s Watershed Model  to one used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) report for the Chesapeake Bay Region.  LimnoTech alleges that differences between the two modeling efforts draw into question the validity of using the CBP Watershed model to develop the Bay TMDL. This contention is completely without merit.  Not only is the CBP Watershed Model a fully valid basis for the TMDL, the CEAP report reaffirms the need for agriculture to do far more to reduce its water quality impacts.

The CBP Watershed Model and the CEAP model were developed for two different purposes. The CBP Watershed Model was created as a management decision-making tool to assist with the development of the TMDL and includes comparable information about multiple pollution sources.  The CEAP model is more narrowly focused on evaluating the effects of conservation practices on cropland.  Because they were developed independently to achieve different goals, it is not surprising the modeling framework and several model parameters (e.g., hydrology, time frame, spatial scale) differ.  Hence, comparing the models is like comparing apples to oranges. 

At its core, the LimnoTech report is an attempt by national agribusiness lobbying groups to discredit the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and delay efforts to clean up the region’s rivers, streams,  and the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay TMDL is a scientifically-based tool developed over a decade in collaboration with numerous federal, state, and academic partners using a state of the art model that peer reviews have validated time and time again. ANPC’s efforts to undermine the TMDL by attacking the credibility of the CBP Watershed  Model  distracts us from the real issue that agriculture, like all other sources of pollution, must do more if we are to restore the Chesapeake and the rivers that feed it. 

 

Flaws
1. The LimnoTech report is fundamentally wrong to compare the CBP Watershed Model’s estimates of TMDL caps for agriculture with the CEAP model’s agricultural pollution loads. 
LimnoTech presents, on the front page of its report, graphs that compare pollution load estimates from cropland for the CBP Watershed Model and CEAP model to the Bay TMDL pollution caps or limits for each pollutant that agriculture is responsible for achieving.  This comparison is misleading and inappropriate. As noted above, the two models’ designs are inherently different. 

By way of example, let’s say you go shopping for a new suit and are alarmed to find that you  no longer fit into a size 8 of your favorite brand.  Now you are  a size 10.  You decide, on the spot, to lose weight so you can fit into a size 8.  The same day, you go into another store and try on a size 8 of a different brand and it fits.  Does that mean you don’t need to lose weight? No!   It means the brands are sized differently and to gauge your progress on losing weight, you should compare your ability to fit into your favorite brand.

In the case of the CEAP and CBP Watershed models, differences in things like time frames, rainfall inputs, and averaging period mean that the outputs from the models will be different. Directly comparing the estimated pollution loads from one model, with the TMDL pollution limits estimated by another, is not scientifically valid or appropriate.

2. Differences in land use are explainable. 
The LimnoTech report indicates that the CBP Watershed Model assumes there are 41.1 million acres of land in the watershed while the CEAP model uses an estimate of 42.49 million acres. The reason why the CEAP model figure is higher is because it includes areas that are not inside the Bay watershed; e.g., this estimate includes most of the land on the Delmarva Peninsula, only part of which is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. If one reconciles the differences, the estimates used for each model are very similar. 

Furthermore, differences in estimated acreages of cropland are also explainable if one considers the above differences in the acreage estimates for the watershed as well as the fact that LimnoTech compared crop data from the CBP Watershed Model from 2009 to data from 2003-2006 in the CEAP model. The LimnoTech report fails to highlight these important differences.

3. The LimnoTech report fails to note that differences in estimates of acreage under conservation tillage are a reporting issue, not a modeling issue. 
Some have suggested that agricultural practices that are implemented voluntarily (i.e., without state or federal cost-share assistance) are not being counted and reported by the states to EPA and thus not included in the CBP Watershed Model. The CEAP report based its rate of practice implementation on farmer surveys; i.e., on what a farmer says he/she is doing in the field.  There is great interest from EPA, USDA, and the Bay jurisdictions in better quantification and accounting of implemented practices, particularly cover crops and no-till, that farmers often implement without cost-share assistance. USDA and EPA have agreed to work cooperatively to address this issue. This commitment is also contained within the Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay developed in response to the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order (13508). 

Thus, this omission of implementation data in the CBP Watershed Model is a reporting issue, not a flaw in the model as concluded by LimnoTech. As verified implementation data are acquired, the CBP Watershed Model will be updated to include this new information.  This omission, however, has no bearing on the TMDL allocations, another point LimnoTech fails to acknowledge.

4. LimnoTech is wrong when it concludes EPA “moved 20 percent of land out of crop production to pasture or forest to help achieve the allocations in the TMDL.” 
This statement typifies a number of inaccuracies found throughout the LimnoTech report.  The Bay TMDL was based on the Bay jurisdictions’ watershed implementation plans, which detail the management measures those jurisdictions conclude are necessary to achieve the TMDL allocations. The jurisdictions, not the EPA, made the decisions about conversion of cropland to pasture, hayland, forest, or forested buffers.   LimnoTech is wrong to state otherwise. 

Conclusion:
It is important to note that the overall conclusions drawn from both the USDA CEAP report and the CBP Watershed Model about agricultural runoff and Bay restoration are entirely consistent. We have made progress to date, reducing nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution from agricultural runoff. More is left to be done, and the deadline is 2025.

We can achieve even greater reductions from the agricultural sector by implementing basic soil conservation and nutrient management plans on the region’s cropland. The fact that two entirely different models, with different assumptions and inputs, have reached the same overall conclusion is quite reaffirming in terms of the management decisions we are making to clean up the region’s waterways.
               


 

 

Comments

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want to bitch about something, then bitch about the wastewater that flows down the jonesfall and straight into the harbour. it's time to stop pointing the finger at farmers and start cleaning up the city and town septic wastewater runoff!

I agree with you about the need to do more about pollution from septic tanks. A good bill is pending in the Maryland General Assembly right now, backed by Governor O'Malley, that would restrict the ability to build large developments on old-fashioned septic systems.

But in terms of the Jones Falls and Baltimore Harbor -- I have to tell you, Baltimore is spending almost a billion dollars right now to fix up its aging sewer system, and millions more to rebuild stream tributaries to the Jones Falls. This is money that EPA compelled us Baltimoreans to spend, when it sued the city about a decade ago and compelled us to deal with this problem. In this case, EPA action was necessary...and it is improving the situation. The farm lobby should learn from this example. Sometimes (as in now) EPA action is necessary, and should be accepted.

Very informative report and you are right that the CEAP ONLY covered the cropland within the Bay watershed. What about the tremendous acres of pastureland that may be over-grazing and the stream may be the only source water for the livestock to drink and to use to cool themselves off. What about farmsteads and animal concentration areas (barnyards, feedlots, sacrifice lots, etc.). I have offered an Inventory – Assessment & Planning Tool to close to 40 people but no-one has explained to me why don’t the powers-that-be want to have a tool where they could pinpoint and track where the good – the bad & the ugly may be? And could develop an estimated cost watershed by watershed to implement conservation on the ground. This is a very encouraging report but lets remember that this TOO is data generated from a computer model and "farmers' surveys". I put very little confidence in "farmers' survey". any of the survey question can be misinterpreted: e.g. "Do you planted via no-till?" and the farmer may only no-till now and then, not continuously. If the data entered is good; the output is good but if it is garbage in; then you have garbage out. The CEAP shows that agriculture still has a lot of work to do and that is ONLY on the cropland portion of their operations.

It never ceases to amaze me how no one from the environmental community has questioned the accuracy of the data the EPA is using to create the TMDL. After all, if the wrong information is entered into the model, and the allocation of nutrients is incorrect, will the Chesapeake Bay be clean by 2025? Well, the answer to that question is obviously NO. I have been following this process from the beginning, and I’ve heard nothing but endorsement of this latest strategy from environmental organization at the local, state, and federal level. This is the wakeup call to all of these organizations. Let’s get this right! While the farm bureau has question the legality of the EPA regulation, much more hay would be made if they focused specifically on the science behind the nutrient allocations. Much has been made of practices implemented by farmers that are not currently accounted for in the Bay model. From my experience, the amount of conservation on farms is vastly undercounted. In fact, States are still trying to determine which BMP’s should be counted. The difficulty comes from the lack of transparency from the EPA about what data was used in the model. I’ve heard some model information will be available in July. Accounting for these undercounted practices as reductions, after the nutrient allocations are finished, will create the appearance of nutrient reductions when in fact no nutrient pollution ever existed. This is very typical of the mindset of some in government agencies, that there is no pollution reduction until the government says so. Will this clean up the Bay!! The time frame created by the executive order is woefully insufficient to allocate nutrients correctly. All stake holders need to come to a consensus about where the nutrient loads are coming from, then work together to get this job done! Some in the farm community feel the CBF, EPA and other environment organization are just using the TMDL process to regulate farming. The majority of the farmers believe this to be the case because they feel the data is incorrect. Farm pollution is a serious problem, but the bigger problem is using the political process and the EPA to regulate agriculture, and in 14 years having a Cheseapke Bay that is still impaired. That’s how environmentalist like Al Gore lose credibility. Buyers beware, CBF, EPA and other organizations. There appears to be many assumptions and gaps in the EPA data. You should embrace the science, not political science.

The reason we have an impaired Bay after more than 14 years is that no-one wants to take on the agricultural community. Elevation22 questions EPA data, should take very serious look at the data being used by USDA-NRCS. To state that agriculture is ONLY responsible 14% of the sediment enter our streams is not creditable. To use "farmer surveys" as hard data is laughable. To ask a few farmers what they "may" be doing and saying all of the other farmers are performing at the same level is wrong. To say that 88% of the farmers are using no-till and reduced tillage is also unbelievable. I have worked for over 45 years in the professional conservation service business and there is no way that 88% of farmers after using no-till and reduced tillage. An independent third party needs to look at the numbers that NRCS is utilizing.

CleanStreams makes a very good point in saying the USDA-NRCS Data needs to be examined. I think I make a good point in saying the EPA data needs to be examined. The EPA data was reviewed, but most of the reviews had a dog in the fight, and was there any commentary from agriculture? There is an inherent distrust between environmentalist and farmers. Until we get over this distrust, the true portrait of where the pollution comes from will never be determined. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that only 14% of the sediment comes from Agriculture. Remember that much of the cropland in the watershed is on the Eastern Shore. Not exactly the steepest ground. Soil loss in that watershed would likely be responsible for less than 14% of the sediment in streams. Granted the piedmont of Maryland and PA would likely be above 14%. Take the RUSLE2 soil loss program for example. RUSLE2 is the most complex soil loss calculation that NRCS has ever used. There was a study a few years ago (I wish I had the name of the study but I think it was done in PA) that this program drastically overstates sediment pollution from farms. That’s right; I said the USDA soil loss program overestimates soil loss. Models are good tools but we shouldn’t let them replace common sense. The problems are the complexity of the program, and the degree to which each individual user correctly accounts for the re-deposition of sediment somewhere else in the crop field. What many conservationists are discovering is that much of the sediment found in streams after storm events is from stream bank erosion from farm and suburban runoff. When the runoff leaves the farm field, it is often relatively clear. A few miles downstream the water looks like chocolate milk. Very few conservationists are thinking of how to solve this problem as most are still chasing the windmills of agricultural pollution from the past (clearstream?). As for no-till farming, I think Dave White of NRCS misspoke when he said 88% of the acres are no-tilled. I think he intended to say that 88% of cropland has a residue management system that employs conservation tillage (NRCS technical jargon). It’s a common practice for many farmers to no-till for 2 or 3 years, and then uses a minimum tillage operation for 1 year. NRCS does NOT consider this no-till, but it is considered a good agricultural practice. Unfortunately some farmers have ceased complete no-till and are returning to this conservation practice because of herbicide resistant weeds. What does EPA consider this management practice? How is this cropping system considered in the Bay Model? Transparency is a two edged sword. Let’s hack at NRCS and EPA and see what comes of it. Ag pollution is still a major problem, and progress still needs to be made, but is the WIP/TMDL the solution?

The reason the EPA, the States, and the environmental groups are all trumpeting the TMDL process is because they see it as their last chance at getting the job done, after the goals of the 2000 and 2010 agreements were not met. However, it was forced upon all of them by a lawsuit brought by the American Canoe Association. It's not something they themselves came up with. It's been in the CWA all along. The EPA just never enforced it until settling the lawsuit.

Do I think it's any better than either of the past sets of goals? Not really. I think it's an unnecessary exercise in paperwork. They're going to do a TMDL for the Bay and for each and every one of its subwatersheds? That would take decades!

The TMDL process is just another way of slicing and dicing the numbers up. What most of them seem to forget is that it's supposed to be a restoration program. Set the goals and then restore the estuary. If you now have two-year milestones, we should be able see exactly which wastewater treatment plants are going to be upgraded in that two-year period. We should be able to see exactly where the States plan to implement cover crops, no-till/low-till farming, stormwater retrofits, septic upgrades, and all the other non-point source controls. We should also be able to access online systems, like PCS for point sources, to get the data we need to verify that they did what they said they were going to do.

Put the model to bed after you've set the goals. I've read that they already plan on doing another model run prior to the final WIPs and TMDL. That's just ridiculous. Did that thing get so much better in the last six months! Of course it didn't.

Elevation22 hit the nail on the head though. He wasn't saying that NRCS is wrong and EPA is right. He's saying that these guys don't deal in full disclosure or transparency. Like he said, get all stakeholders or their representatives to sit down at the table and agree on the input decks to the model. Then run it and settle on the loading allocations. At that point, put the model on the shelf for 5-10 years and focus on implementation. And stop calling it America's premier restoration program until you do that.

I think some are missing the point, sometimes intensionally. It doesn't matter to a model what the farmers are doing or not doing. The CBP model outlines how much pollutants need to be reduced to clean up the bay. It says that you have to reduce the pollutants into each river and stream needs to be reduced to, to get the bay down to acceptable levels. If the farmers are instituting pollution controls, as the lobby says, then they should have no problem meeting the demands of the CBP model. If they are not, they should be. If they truly want to help, they should work with the local districts to come up with more acceptable strategies to reach the levels the model calls for, and not spend all this money trying to avoid their responsibilities. Many others, as those in Baltimore and other places, are paying a lot of money in the form of utility fees and taxes to cover the cost of upgrading sewage systems, building stormwater management systems, and other things to clean up the bay, the farmers should do their share too. Some of the things they could be doing may not cost much in time or money, compared to what they are spending on fighting it.

Sounds like Walter has some insight as to how the model was created. I’m curious as to how the total loading for the bay was determined. Granted, EPA was the agency who determined the total load in the bay. EPA broke those numbers down into State goals, and then the State took those numbers, (with very little explanation from EPA as to how the total load was determined) and has now divided them up by county. Eventually the County will have to allocate the load to each watershed as MDE requires. I guess what I’m trying to point out is that through all of these steps in the process; there is great potential for error to occur. The model is only correct when you can start with a known loading level, and then correctly identify those sources that contribute to that load. When we have both of those numbers, we can expect the model to accurately predict how much nutrient reductions are required to meet TMDL. Are we there yet Walter? Do you know how those who created the model determined the nutrient loading of different polluters? Some Bay scientists have been quoted as saying the model is sufficient to act. Many of these same scientists have questions certain aspects of the model. I was recently talking to one insider who had some input into the creation of the model. For a practice run of the model, (I had the impression it was over a year ago) they choose a beef cattle farm in Frederick County Maryland to determine needed nutrient reductions. This farm already had many pollution reduction practices applied. From this practice run of the model, it showed he could only have one beef cow on his entire farm. I failed to ask him how many animals the farmer currently has, but I had the impression that it was a large herd. Needless to say they went back to the drawing board. A model is only as good as the assumptions or determinations made by those who create it. AND, WHEN THOSE ASSUMPTIONS AND DETERMINATIONS ARE HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC, AS MUCH OF THE MODEL INFORMATION IS, HOW CAN ANYONE AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH OUTCOME! Let’s hope more information is released soon so we can put this debate to rest and get on with cleaning up the Bay.

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