EPA, State Funds for Protecting Waterways Threatened

Jul 18, 2017

The Middle River that flows through Augusta County is one of the most polluted rivers in the state. Thanks to fencing and a riparian buffer, farmer Bobby Whitescarver has been able to cut water pollution 30 percent once the river flows through his farm.
Credit Jessie Knadler

The majority of streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed – that includes most rivers that flow through the Shenandoah Valley – are in some state of pollution. The first and best stop for clean-up is on agricultural land.  But government assistance is woefully inadequate—and if President Trump’s proposed budget goes through could become even worse. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler looks at the future of water quality in Virginia.

Bobby Whitescarver and his wife Jeanne Trimble Hoffman’s 40-acre farm in Swoope has been in her family for nine generations. It’s not hyperbole to say that farming is in her blood.

BOBBY WHITESCARVER:  She is actually a cow whisperer. She knows cattle. I know grass. Some people call this a grass farm because that’s where it starts.

The Middle River that flows through their farm is a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. It is the biggest river in Augusta County and also the most polluted. It’s because upstream there are cows in the river.

WHITESCARVER: When it’s hot the cows wanna be in the river to cool off but they disturb the sediment. They destroy the stream banks.

Sediment suffocates fish and other aquatic life. The Middle River can no longer support Virginia’s native brook trout, thanks to cows upstream.

WHITESCARVER: They deposit manure and urine in the water and that pollutes it.

Manure contains E.coli. In addition to fencing, Whitescarver has spent years cultivating a dense wall of trees, bushes and grasses lining the river banks. This riparian buffer keeps the water cool and helps prevent sediment, runoff and other pollutants from reaching the water. He consistently tests the water for E.coli as it enters then leaves the farm. E.coli levels are typically reduced 30 percent by the time the water flows downstream.

Riparian buffers are vital for improving the health of Virginia’s waterways. The USDA has implemented programs to incentivize landowners to conserve more land. The biggest and most successful is the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which pays rent to farmers like Whitescarver who take land out of production and convert it to cover.  Since its inception, landowners around the country have enrolled more than 23.5 million acres of land into the program.

AL TODD: It’s a very lucrative, I would say, or beneficial program for farmers….in exchange, you manage that land to a conservation standard.

Al Todd is the executive director for the Alliance of the Chesapeake Bay. His organization works with landowners on planting buffers.

CRP has proved to be very popular because landowners often make more money from CRP than what they’d earn from renting that land to, let’s say, a rancher for grazing. It’s become so popular that the program is now on hold because it’s about to reach its Congressional limit of 24 million acres. This is an issue because landowners have less incentive to conserve land. Raising the acreage cap was a big topic of discussion during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on conservation’s role in the 2018 farm bill last month.

Part of why it’s so popular, says Al Todd, who used to work for the USDA, is that the CRP isn’t selective enough.

TODD: Right now, it’s first come, first serve. Everyone who meets the minimum qualifications qualifies….You know, as we increase the cap,  it may be one of those cases where as we increase the cap we may want to increase the cap only for a limited number of practices that produce an exceptional number of benefits.

Such as, planting riparian forest buffers to protect the watershed.

Now, there are other conservation programs available to landowners in Virginia – there’s the Resource Management Plan, there’s CREP, which is a subsidiary of CRP, there’s the Ag BMP Cost Share Program, but CRP is the flagship. It’s the biggest and most prominent. State funds for other conservation programs are facing shortfalls, too.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, 900 miles of stream buffers need to be planted each year to reach clean up targets of the Bay watershed. The pace as of 2015 was 64 miles per year. The number will almost certainly decrease if President Trump’s proposed budget goes through, which calls for zero funding of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay clean up program.

WHITESCARVER: That’s going to affect us big time. The EPA Chesapeake Bay Program helps fund state positions, helps fund cost share programs to help pay for alternative watering systems, fences, hardwood native trees along these streams, the things we’re talking about right here. That budget zeroed out would greatly impact water quality. It would put a stop to a lot of good work and we know this works. You know, you can see – 30 percent reduction. This farm produces clean water because of those programs.

Trump’s proposed budget is unlikely to pass – it’s more like a wish list -- but it signals the administration’s desire to turn conservation over to states. The governors of the six states in the Bay watershed, not surprisingly, really want that full federal funding.