Virginia is trying something new to reduce pollution and restore clean water to the state’s streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. It’s called the Resource Management Plan Program, and it’s aimed at farmers. If it works as envisioned, this first-of-its-kind-in-the-region tool could help the state meet its Chesapeake Bay clean water goals by 2025.
The program calls for developing resource management plans prepared by a state-certified planner and customized for each individual farm. Each plan would prescribe specific clean water practices that reduce runoff pollution sufficiently to meet Virginia’s Bay cleanup goals. The farm practices would include fertilizer and soil management, planting grass and forest buffers along stream banks, conservation tillage (no plowing), use of winter cover crops to absorb excess soil nutrients and reduce erosion, and fencing livestock from farm streams.
Participation by farmers in the program will be purely voluntary, but if a farmer fully implements his plan, regularly maintains the practices, and agrees to periodic inspections, he or she will be exempt -- receive “safe harbor” status -- from any future state Chesapeake Bay cleanup requirements for a period of nine years.
Backed by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation in the 2012 General Assembly, the program is intended to provide farmers with more certainty and flexibility regarding what farmers need to do to meet the state’s Bay cleanup goals. As the Farm Bureau has clearly indicated on many occasions, most farmers are willing to do what’s right for the Bay, but what they want is certainty and then to be left alone.
Farmers certainly must play a significant role if Bay restoration is to succeed. Science says that farm runoff contributes nearly 40 percent of the excess nitrogen pollution plaguing the Chesapeake Bay system. While farmers have made great strides reducing runoff in recent years, much work remains to be done. Virginia’s Bay cleanup blueprint calls for agricultural pollution to be cut by half over the next 13 years.
The proposed program provides a new opportunity to reduce pollution. As with many endeavors, however, a good plan can be undone by poor execution. The Virginia “safe-harbor” program seems to be a classic devil-in-the-details case. To be successful, it must be implemented with rigor, transparency, and accountability.
If…the public is assured that the prescribed farm practices will in fact achieve the water quality standards called for by the Chesapeake Bay clean water blueprint…if the state insists on adequate checks and balances to ensure the program does not amount to mere “paper” improvements in water quality...if the farm practices are implemented, are working properly, are maintained, and are achieving improvements in rivers and streams, then the program holds the real promise of helping restore the state’s streams, rivers, and the Bay.
And, of course, farmers must voluntarily participate in large numbers. As Ann Jennings, CBF’s Virginia executive director, says, “Ultimately, it will be the agriculture community that determines if this program is successful. Widespread acceptance and adoption by farmers is the only means by which this new non-regulatory approach to improving water quality will work.”
Should farmers be held accountable for reducing pollution? Should the Virginia program ensure this accountability? If so, should farmers receive “safe harbor” from future pollution requirements?
Virginia officials are now seeking public comment on proposed regulations to implement the program and will take comments through September 14. To read the regulations and offer your thoughts, click here.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation