Promoting a Clean Chesapeake Bay

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May 2, 2012

Just last week, I participated in a panel discussion surrounding water issues – particularly issues related to agriculture’s role in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I viewed the panel as an opportunity to highlight the fertilizer industry’s keen interest in working with farmers and other stakeholders to improve the health of the Bay’s ecosystem.  Improved water quality in the Bay watershed benefits not just farmers but also those who live in the Bay area and others who fish and swim in its waters.

To that end, I am integrally involved in an overarching industry stewardship initiative aimed at ensuring that agriculture – and particularly the fertilizer industry - truly makes a positive difference in keeping the Bay clean. Through this effort we are working with the agriculture community to lead the charge and drive positive change by minimizing the impact of the use of fertilizer nutrients both in the Bay watershed, but also on a national basis. Further information on this initiative is available at http://www.nutrientstewardship.org.

Our efforts surround the use of 4R nutrient stewardship – using the right fertilizer source at the right time, at the right time and in the right place. This framework is both science-based and site specific, meaning that it works as well for farmers in California as it does for producers in the Chesapeake Bay. It is a forward-looking strategy that is being recognized by both government and non-governmental organizations with an interest in helping improve agriculture’s environmental economic and social performance.

A few examples of the positive impacts that are being recognized follow:

  • U.S. farmers are growing corn with record efficiency.  In 2010, U.S. farmers grew 87 percent more corn using 4 percent fewer nutrients than they did in 1980. 
  • Since 1980, the Chesapeake Bay Area states have reduced fertilizer nutrient consumption by 35 percent:
    • Nitrogen consumption is down 15 percent
    • Phosphate consumption is down 55 percent; and
    • Potash consumption is down 41 percent.

Unfortunately, this got lost as other members of the NAFB panel – including Bill Baker of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - chose to ignore the fertilizer industry and farmers’ positive 4R efforts and quickly waded into negativity.

So began a heated discussion of litigation recently initiated by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and supported by The Fertilizer Institute (TFI). To be clear, a point that I repeatedly made during the panel was that the focus of the litigation is about getting the numbers right and absolutely not about denying agriculture’s responsibility in ensuring that its practices minimize impacts to the watershed.

First, here is a bit of history.  The AFBF/TFI lawsuit does not challenge EPA’s role in developing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Bay. Rather, it challenges the science that EPA is using to do so. Concerns about the model are central to our point.  For example, the TMDL allocations for nutrient limitations were derived from only 200 nitrogen and phosphorus sampling stations throughout the 64,000 square mile Bay watershed.  Quite simply, these are not enough sampling points to develop accurate edge of field nutrient loss estimates for farmers.  In addition, the model fails to accurately account for various conservation and 4R based practices that clearly reduce edge of field nutrient losses (state sponsored cover crops, for example, which are used extensively in the watershed).  Thus, at times, the model generated higher nutrient loss figures when practices were implemented than when they weren’t. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that this doesn’t make sense.

Litigation is always our path of last resort, yet it is a potential outcome when government agencies such as EPA pursue policies absent open communication with stakeholders – in this case, the agricultural community. When regulators are not talking to the regulated community, mistrust develops. During the TMDL comment period agricultural stakeholders repeatedly asked EPA for the data sets, and logic behind the TMDL – basically for an explanation of how the allocations were made.  EPA was either unwilling or unable to produce these important pieces of the regulations; most likely due to flaws in the model. Not receiving the modeling information until the weekend before the TMDL was issued; we believed there was no choice but to challenge EPA in the courts. Thus the lawsuit was filed eleven days after the total maximum daily load (TMDL) was issued.
 
During the panel discussion, Baker of the CBF called the EPA TMDL ‘voluntary.’  Ask the farmers in the region if they think compliance is voluntary. A zero discharge chicken house – now mandated by law – costs the producer $30,000 more than a conventional one.  Ask the states and their budget gurus whether the TMDL is voluntary. EPA has threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of funding if they don’t comply with the Phase I/II Watershed Improvement Plans (WIPs).

Following the NAFB panel, the Bay Foundation published a newsletter editorial positioned as a news piece. Because this newsletter is likely read by much of the public with an interest in a healthy Bay, I would like to correct the record. Primarily to point out that none of above part of my statement including our emphasis on 4R stewardship happened to make the CBF article.  Instead, CBF used only the portion of the statement that suited their arguments.

While the importance of utilizing the paradigm of balanced nutrition, and not single nutrients in isolation, along with the complexity of nutrient – pollution type issues, in which systematic changes to the ecosystem have impacted the amount of nutrients that flow into the Bay are important points, taken in isolation these arguments paint a picture of an industry that is not concerned about the Bay - when nothing could be further from the truth.

To the same effect solutions must come from a holistic approach. Agriculture’s use of nutrients is but one of the factors impacting the Bay.  For example, the loss of 90 percent of the oysters and other filter feeders; as well as unbridled development which causes not only nutrient losses to water; but atmospheric N deposition are additional drivers in the overall health of the Bay (it is estimated that up to one third of nitrogen in the Bay comes from atmospheric sources, much of it from power plants in the Ohio River Valley, but also from the tremendous vehicular traffic around the watershed).

Everyone agreed on the panel that acre per-acre, well managed farmland loses fewer nutrients than either suburban or urban land.  The producers on the panel all agreed that they have worked effortlessly to implement conservation and 4R best management practices that further reduce soil and nutrient loss.

In the end, it is a shame that CBF decided to obfuscate by omission.  We agree with CBF’s commitment to clean water, and to that end, agree that source water protection is important. Further, we believe that there is a need for additional funding and technical assistance to help the nation’s farmers implement conservation and stewardship practices. 4R  nutrient stewardship should be the cornerstone of these efforts.

Let’s hope that future discussions focus less on finger pointing and more on opportunities for widespread cooperation to achieve our shared goal.