For residents of Maryland and Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay is a hallmark of family vacations, weekend getaways, adventures in crabbing or clamming, or even part of their backyard. The bay is the largest estuary in the U.S., with a watershed spanning over 64,000 miles into which 150 rivers and streams flow. In the expanse of the bay’s watershed, agriculture reigns dominant with over 80,000 farms bringing in billions of dollars in sales every year. However, the agriculture industry can have a profound impact on the estuary by releasing runoff, sediments, and nutrients into water.
When waters become overloaded with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, harmful algal blooms can occur that kill seagrasses, fish, and shellfish. Therefore, science-based conservation, restoration, and rehabilitation have been important practices to improve water quality and overall ecosystem health for numerous aquatic organisms that inhabit the estuary. On September 22, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry held a hearing to review the rehabilitation practices that have been implemented in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in recent years.
Mr. Jason Weller (Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Department of Agriculture) testified that the program he heads is helping farmers utilize conservation systems to reduce nutrient and sediment loss from their fields into waters that flow into the bay. Examples include having a buffer zone to decrease erosion and loss of sediment from fields and waste management systems to reduce nutrient loss. These conservation practices are voluntary for farmers but are funded by federal programs, which have invested nearly $1 billion dollars since 2009.
Pennsylvania is one of several states that does not have coastline on the Chesapeake but is home to rivers and streams that are part of the watershed or drainage basin. Runoff from the state comprises 55 percent of the total nitrogen load to the bay. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that Pennsylvania reduce its nitrogen load to the bay by more than 40 percent by 2025. In his written testimony, Mr. Russell Redding (Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture) explained that the Keystone State has been working hard to reduce their impacts on the bay with help from the NRCS, but “unfortunately, both federal and state resources are limited, even with significant federal investment in conservation programs.” Voluntary practices are needed to help pick up what the limited federal funds cannot cover. An example of a voluntary practice is the creation of “conservation districts” (in all but one county in Pennsylvania) that implement environmental programs and can also inspect farms for nutrient management and erosion control plans.
While Chairman Thompson believes voluntary practices are more effective than governmental mandates, Mr. Weller remained optimistic of the collaboration between federal agency programs and the voluntary practices of farmers. “We need to celebrate. We’ve collectively made huge progress,” Mr. Weller claimed.
Overall, the hearing reflected the positive opinions about the progress of restoring the health and water quality of Chesapeake Bay by reducing nutrient loads. The vast and beloved Chesapeake Bay is on the mend, but there is still more to be done to completely restore the watershed that millions of people and thousands of plant and animals species call home. The hope is that one day it will be fully healed.