Over the years, the Chesapeake Bay has been known for many things: bountiful seafood, such as clams, oysters and the bay’s iconic blue crabs; its boating, fishing and water sports industry; its curly-haired duck-hunting dogs.
Now, however, the bay has become famous for something else: its pollution.
For more than 30 years, states in the region have tried to restore the bay, the largest estuary in the U.S. and a body of water which has effectively served as a dumping ground for agricultural pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals from urban runoff and industrial sources for decades. In the last few years — and after numerous failed attempts — they’ve inched closer to succeeding, thanks to an Environmental Protection Agency-led plan that puts limits on the amount of agricultural nutrients entering the bay, pollution that has spawned numerous oxygen-free, marine life-killing “dead zones” in the bay and its tributaries. The plan was created at the request of the six Chesapeake Bay states and the District of Columbia, and according to Claudia Friedetzky of the Maryland Sierra Club, is “the best chance that we have ever had to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.”
But to a group of 21 Attorneys General from states almost exclusively outside the Chesapeake Bay region, the plan means only one thing: EPA overreach.
Earlier this year, a group of 21 Attorneys General from states as far away from the Chesapeake Bay as Alaska and Wyoming submitted an amicus brief that aims to strike down the EPA’s Chesapeake cleanup plan. The AGs argue that the cleanup plan raises serious concerns about states’ rights, and they worry that if the plan is left to stand, the EPA could enact similar pollution limits on watersheds such as the Mississippi.
Oh yeah, it’s backed by big agriculture lobbyists.
To understand why the 21 state AGs care about a cleanup plan that is, for the most part, outside of their boundaries, you first have to understand why outside groups are suing to strike down the cleanup plan in the first place. That comes down to the interests of one powerful entity: the U.S. agriculture industry.
When the EPA enacted its latest cleanup plan, the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, in December 2010, major agriculture groups were quick to sue, arguing the agency didn’t have the power to restrict the amount of pollutants that enter the bay. Their response came as no surprise, considering agriculture is the largest contributor of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, accounting for 42 percent of the nitrogen, 58 percent of the phosphorous and 58 percent of the sediment that entered the bay in 2012. The EPA’s new cleanup plan established a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can enter the bay each year, potentially cutting pollution by 20-25 percent.
Those pollution limits, Baker said, are exactly what the bay needs to recover and “absolutely consistent with what science says is needed to address the Chesapeake Bay.” Successfully reducing nutrient runoff could mean shrinking the dangerous “dead zones” — oxygen-free areas that kill clams and worms, key food sources for blue crabs — and deadly algal blooms that have plagued the bay for decades. The pollution diet, as it’s written, also allows states “maximum flexibility” in determining how to meet the limits set forth by the EPA, Terri White, press officer at the EPA, told ThinkProgress.
The American Farm Bureau, a powerful agricultural interest group which has sued the EPA on behalf of farmers multiple times before, has led the charge against the EPA, claiming they’re concerned the agency’s actions in the Chesapeake Bay region could lead to similar plans in the Mississippi River watershed. The Mississippi runs through the heart of agricultural country in the U.S. and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, a water body that’s been plagued by massive dead zones for years.
So yeah, this is about agriculture companies selling farmers fertilizer. Weird thing is that good farming practices (which we don’t enforce in Saskatchewan) would eliminate most of the pollution going into the water (there and here).
But Cleo Braver, who runs the organic Cottingham Farm in Easton, Maryland, said she thinks a pollution diet is exactly what the bay needs. A dirty bay has implications for the community’s environment and health, and she said farmers should step up to improve their practices.
“Farmers can be a part of changing [the bay] for the better, and I think we have a long, long way to go to clean up our farming,” she said.
Braver said she’s been looking for ways to reduce nutrient pollution since she started her farm. She uses buffer strips — things like grass and vegetative barriers which can remove up to half of the nutrients and pesticides and 75 percent of the sediment from farm runoff, something Hutchison has on his farm, as well. Braver has also used cover crops, which cut down on the need for fertilizers, for the past seven or so years. She said other farmers should be encouraged to do more of the same if they want to do their part in improving the bay.
While many of the farmers who own their land in Maryland have implemented these pollution-reduction measures, Braver said the farmers who don’t — often those who are paid to farm land that doesn’t belong to them — aren’t pushing for the landowners to plant things like buffer strips on their farms. Farmers can get financial help to install pollution control measures through Maryland’s EQIP initiative, which provides incentives for conservation on farms.
There are differing opinions on how much progress has been made in constructing buffers in the bay region. In December, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said farmers in bay states were falling behind in planting buffer trees around their farmland, an effort that’s part of a pledge by the bay states to plant 185,000 acres of trees on farmland by 2025 to help reduce pollution. The Farm Bureau, however, maintains that farmers have done enough to help the bay recover. The group states that farmers in the bay watershed have implemented pollution-reducing measures in 96 percent of the cropland acres in production in the region, which has resulted in nutrient runoff reductions.
For the record, we do maintain these strips in the logging industry.
So here is my question. If the agriculture lobby is so powerful down in the United States, how big of an influence it on Saskatchewan and our own rather lax environmental regulations. While the legislation has passed that require lobbyists to register, the registry and protocols are still months away. I think it is naive to think that the multi-national companies that are trying to block improved environmental legislation in the United States are not aggressively lobbying against environmental legislation here in Canada.