Editor’s Note: This article is the second in an ongoing series that looks at water quality goals for the Chesapeake Bay and the fundamental challenges, which have persisted for decades, in reducing nutrient pollution from agriculture.

Policy and science leaders have said that the Chesapeake region will not meet its 2025 nutrient goals for the Bay, largely because of an inability to sufficiently reduce nutrient pollution from farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

The reasons are complex. But it’s important to explore those challenges as the region begins a vigorous conversation about the future of the Bay restoration effort beyond 2025.

The first article in this series can be found here.

As far as the Chesapeake Bay cleanup is concerned, Kenn Pattison was given a job in 2010 that might be labeled Mission Impossible. He had to design a plan that met Pennsylvania’s nutrient reduction goal.

Time and again, the state Department of Environmental Protection employee drafted strategies that called for an increasingly unrealistic amount of pollution controls on farmland. Time and again, his plans fell short.

Ultimately, Pattison got the job done — “on paper,” he noted. It called for farmers to voluntarily implement high-priority runoff control practices on 92% of farmland and take large tracts out of production.

“It was no longer a matter of ‘will we hit the mark?’”?recalled Pattison, who retired in 2013. “It was a matter of just writing a plan.”

That plan was part of the regional effort to produce a realistic, accountable strategy for reducing nutrient pollution in the Bay that could be completed by 2025. But, as with earlier goals set for 2000 and 2010, the region will miss its 2025 goal — and by a large margin.

In large part, that is because the goal-setting process failed to fully appreciate the difficulty of reducing nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — from the region’s 83,000 farms, which are by far the largest source of water-fouling nutrients to the Bay.

Now, as the region stands on the brink of missing a third deadline in a quarter century, it faces questions about what comes next.

In dozens of Bay Journal interviews with current and former government officials, researchers, farmers, conservation district staff, environmentalists and others, most suggest that meeting goals on the region’s farmlands will likely take decades.

Reducing nutrient pollution from agriculture is a major challenge for all of the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program

The need for patience was bolstered by a recent report from the Bay’s scientific community that said current efforts are unlikely to achieve nutrient reduction goals without significant changes.

Nearly everyone believes that goals and deadlines are essential to making progress. But many also say that seemingly unachievable objectives can have the opposite effect: They can create unrealistic public expectations, diminish participation if goals are seen as unattainable, and result in inefficient use of funding. They can also stymie innovation and alternative cleanup approaches.

Perhaps most importantly, unrealistic deadlines don’t allow enough time to build the personal engagement and connections critical to earning trust from the farmers who manage a quarter of the Bay’s water shed and will bear the bulk of future Bay-related nutrient reductions.

Making things accountable

In 1987, a young activist, Chuck Fox, was dismayed by a draft document committing states and the federal government to reduce pollution in the Bay.

Four years earlier, those parties had signed an agreement establishing the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership between the Bay states and the federal government that continues to guide the restoration effort today. But the one-page 1983 document that launched the program contained no details about what should be done.

Members of the Chesapeake Executive Council met on Dec. 15, 1987, to sign the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which set the first numeric goals for reducing pollution in the Bay. (Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program)

Now a new agreement was being crafted to flesh out those details, but Fox and a small group that analyzed the draft faulted it for not having measurable targets. They especially wanted goals for nutrients, which were considered the major threat to the health of the Bay because they trigger its oxygen-starved “dead zones.”

They presented their case at a news conference in Washington, DC. “The headlines, literally in every newspaper around the Bay the next day, were ‘Bay Agreement lacks specifics,’” recalled Fox, who went on to several positions in state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations.

It worked. The final 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement contained a commitment to cut the amount of nutrients reaching the Bay 40% by 2000. The goal was based on rough estimates of what it would take to eliminate dead zones in the deepest part of the upper Chesapeake, where water conditions were at their worst.

“It was this notion that the accountability regime for the Bay needed to start putting out numbers that we were going to hit,” Fox said. “The only way we were going to hold the Bay Program accountable for meeting the standard was to set these quantitative targets.”

In 1992, that goal was given teeth: It was translated into state– and river-specific nutrient reduction objectives, and Bay states were tasked with writing “tributary strategies” showing how those would be achieved.

The region made progress but did not meet the goals. The next Baywide agreement, Chesapeake 2000, set a new target for 2010. That was also missed, leading to the latest targets keyed on 2025. Policy and science leaders have already acknowledged that the 2025 deadline won’t be met, either.

Still, the goals were important drivers. They led to stricter limits on nutrient discharges from wastewater treatment plants — which have yielded substantial nutrient reductions — as well as new efforts to regulate stormwater from developed lands. They have also spurred increased oversight and funding for practices that control nutrient runoff from farms.

Water-polluting nutrients from farmland originate in manure that has been applied to fields as fertilizer or directly from animals with access to streams. To clean up the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia will need to ramp up farm conservation practices to unprecedented levels. Dave Harp

Overall, actions taken since 1985 should eventually reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay by about 27%, according to Bay Program computer model estimates.

The goals also have helped raise awareness and concern among the public, including farmers.

Watershed restoration specialists at the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania work with farmers in both the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River basins to install conservation measures to improve the health of waterways.

“We feel the agricultural conservation discussion, writ large, is further along on the Chesapeake side than in the Delaware side,” said Lamonte Garber, Stroud’s watershed restoration coordinator.

“The farmers over on the Delaware side almost to a person say, ‘Boy, am I glad I’m not in the Chesapeake.’ In the same breath, they say, ‘Boy, I wish we had the resources that farmers on the Chesapeake side have.’”

Despite those resources, reining in nutrient runoff from farms has proved to be to be far more difficult than anticipated.

Success depends on the widespread use of best management practices, or BMPs, such as planting nutrient-absorbing cover crops in the fall, installing forest buffers along streams, reducing soil tillage, and scores of other actions aimed at managing runoff.

And while financial assistance is available for many of them, BMPs typically require some investment from farmers, including increased time and management, and may require taking land out of production even as farmers are under market pressure to produce more.

“It’s one thing to put a plan on paper and another to see it through with private landowners operating a family-run business in a volatile commodity market,” said Mark Dubin, a farmer with the University of Maryland Extension and senior agricultural adviser for the Bay Program.

“Once people look at the numbers, and you see the percentage change we have to make to get from where we are to where we have to be, some of this can be pretty staggering,” he said.

Paper plans

The problems facing Pattison in 2010 illustrate that challenge. To meet the Bay’s clean water objectives, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load that year. The TMDL, also called the “pollution diet,” set new nutrient reduction goals for Bay states.

Many in the agricultural community say the computer model used to estimate Chesapeake Bay cleanup progress doesn’t accurately reflect actions on the ground. Dave Harp

Meeting those goals on agricultural lands, at least in computer model projections, came alarmingly close requiring implementation of “everything, everywhere by everyone” — the theoretical maximum of what was possible and a level far beyond what programs have historically been able to deliver.

Pattison’s plan ultimately called for putting the most effective BMPs on 92% of farmland in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed and took huge amounts of land out of production.

It “retired” 138,889 acres of cropland, planted forest buffers on nearly 40,000 other acres, and called for large amounts of wetland restoration, grass buffers and other practices that removed additional acreage from production. Removing farmland from production typically produces the most nutrient reduction benefits, though it also reduces farm productivity and income.

“We made it on paper,” Pattison said, “and I just shook my head.”

Matt Ehrhart, who was director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania Office at the time, said he was surprised the state “didn’t at least make a play for a longer time period in the TMDL context, because there was no way to mobilize so much work on so many farms, let alone [deal with] the cost.”

“It just was such a different animal in Pennsylvania, and we always glossed over that,” said Ehrhart, who is now director of watershed restoration at the Stroud Water Research Center. “All the states have the same challenges. It’s just that Pennsylvania’s ag load, and ag production, dwarfs the other states.”

Indeed, while Pennsylvania’s situation is extreme, many consider the agricultural portions of Maryland and Virginia’s cleanup plans unrealistic, too, largely because they also require such high levels of BMPs on farmland.

The number of BMPs written into plans are often several times higher than what conservation districts and others tasked with implementing the strategies thought was feasible. Further, agencies have nowhere near enough staff to help farmers with this work.

Reducing water pollution from agriculture is a challenge throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Pennsylvania has more farms in its portion of the watershed than any other state in the region. Dave Harp

Jeff Corbin was a senior adviser on Bay issues to the regional EPA administrator when states were writing their original cleanup plans under the TMDL. Earlier in his career, he had worked as an assistant secretary of natural resources in Virginia, where he acknowledged earlier tributary strategies could not meet agricultural targets.

Corbin said he was hopeful the TMDL effort would produce a better result. But it ultimately became a “mathematical exercise” as state plans approached the “everything, everywhere by everyone” scenario. “On paper, the goals were attainable. I think we’re starting to realize that some of them were not.”

It is a widely held perception.

A Dartmouth College professor in 2021 interviewed 59 people involved in Bay policy development and found that many described writing cleanup plans as a “paper process,” producing strategies that could not be effectively implemented.

What’s realistic?

States in 2019 updated their Bay cleanup plans to show how they would reach 2025 goals. Pennsylvania, which had submitted perhaps the most unrealistic plan in 2010, revised its strategy based largely on county-by-county assessments of what people thought could actually be done. It fell about 25% short of its target.

That spurred a suit by environmental groups, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia, contending the EPA needed to force the state to take greater action.

Under a recent proposed settlement agreement, the EPA agreed to take several actions, including stepping up farm inspections in the state. Pennsylvania has long been criticized for poor oversight of its own programs.

But the settlement doesn’t change the fact that Pennsylvania’s plan doesn’t add up, and no one has ever produced a realistic plan that meets the state’s cleanup goals.

The situation in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County — which, with more than 5,000 farms, is by far the most intensive agri-cultural county in the Bay watershed — illustrates the challenge.

Lancaster’s plan received considerable praise for its collaborative efforts that included farmers, conservation groups, local governments and others. But it only achieves about 75% of its nitrogen goal and sets the goal line not at 2025, but at 2040 — which is still considered a stretch.

“Is that even realistic? Probably not,” said Chris Thompson, district manager of the Lancaster County Conservation District.

“I always say it’s dependent on the funding, regulatory flexibility and the people. If we don’t have those three components, it doesn’t matter how far out you project, we’ll never get it done.”

Ryan Davis of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay removes protective netting from young trees on a Pennsylvania farm in July 2020. The Alliance planted the trees in 2019 to form a 1-acre stream buffer that will filter stormwater runoff before it leaves the 88-acre farm. Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

Acquiring funding and maintaining technical support staff needed to enact such an aggressive plan is an ongoing challenge. And it’s faced by conservation districts everywhere.

Hiring and maintaining staff is difficult because funding is unpredictable, a problem cited by conservation districts in all of the Bay states. Thompson rattled off numbers to illustrate the point: Four years ago, his office’s budget was $1.2 million; this year it is $13.5 million. Next year, they’re anticipating between $3 million and $5 million, and beyond that he doesn’t know.

Before hiring people, Thompson said he likes to anticipate several years of steady funding levels to maintain them.

Bringing on and training new staff is a slow process that confounds aggressive timelines. It can take two to three years before a person can do most tasks independently. “It’s not like we’re luring in fully trained people to fill those positions so that they can hit the ground running,” Thompson said.

But making progress takes more than training new technicians. It can take years to build relationships with farmers, said Kevin Lutz, agricultural program manager with the conservation district.

“A lot of conservation work gets done with relationships and trust building,” Lutz said. “So if a farmer is constantly working with a new individual, a new technician, they feel like they’re calling up a stranger. There’s a difference between just having a body in a position versus having an experienced body.”

Further, budget increases don’t always help with farmer outreach. The county has taken over some agricultural compliance work from understaffed state agencies. It is also absorbing increased requirements from the Bay Program to verify that older BMPs are still working.

“Staff are spending more time in the office completing paperwork and less time in the field working with landowners,” Thompson said.

Lack of technical support

Lancaster County’s situation is not unusual. Lack of adequate technical support for farms was one of the top concerns cited in public comments about updated plans completed by other states in 2019 as well.

But that money often goes to state and federal cost-share programs that subsidize the installation of BMPs on farmland, which count toward meeting cleanup goals in computer models.

The money often does not support the staff who work with farmers to implement those practices. That means thinly stretched personnel are likely to focus on the “lowest hanging fruit,” as opposed to more effective actions that might take greater time and effort.

“Appropriators like to buy things,” said Ann Swanson, the retired executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of Bay states. “So they like to buy BMPs. They like to buy trees. They like to buy things you can see. And with technical assistance, you can’t really see it. It’s even hard to measure.”

The commission highlighted the dire need for more technical assistance staff in a 2017 report, Boots on the Ground, that said the issue was a “red flag” for the cleanup efforts.

“This really is the Achilles heel of the Bay restoration,” Swanson said.

That shortcoming is likely to hinder the effectiveness of even greater amounts of money now being steered toward the Bay by legislation at the state and federal levels.

Agriculture secretaries from states in the Bay watershed noted in a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz last August that “large increases [in funding] have not consistently resulted in large growths in implementation.” The letter said that “well-documented needs in existing programs and systemic issues like availability of technical assistance providers in agriculture are increasing in severity [despite] record spending.”

A Bay Program analysis last year also expressed doubt about how effectively the new money can be used without more technical support staff, and it cited the difficulty of hiring new people under what are likely to be just short-term funding increases.

“This impacts jurisdictions’ abilities to spend the new funding in an effective and efficient manner,” the analysis said.

Reality checks

Despite the influx of available funding after the TMDL went into effect, the computer models the EPA uses to assess cleanup progress show that the average annual rate of nutrient reductions from farmland has actually decreased.

Only 6 million of the 30 million pounds of nitrogen reductions from 2010 through 2021 were due to runoff controls on farms, according to the models; most of the rest came from point sources, mainly wastewater plant upgrades, where discharges are measured at the end of a pipe.

With most of those upgrades completed, the lion’s share of the 40 million pounds of remaining nitrogen reductions must come from agriculture.

One reason for the slow pace could be the intensification of agricultural production: The number of farm animals in the watershed has increased, and farmers tend to produce more crops per acre, often requiring more fertilizer.

But the actual amount of progress is unclear. Computer models in large part estimate progress based on the number of BMPs installed. That has put emphasis on funding the installation of BMPs, with less focus on examining how well those individual practices are actually performing.

The result is widespread distrust in the modeled results.

The official tallies of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay from agriculture are based on computer model estimates, not direct measurements. Dave Harp

With the 2025 deadline approaching, more federal and state money has been steered toward agricultural cost share programs in the region — nearly $2 billion since 2014, including a record influx from recent federal legislation totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

These Holstein heifers belong to an Amish dairy farm that supplies milk to the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association. As part of its contract with Turkey Hill Dairy, the cooperative must ensure that its providers not only have conservation plans but implement the practices contained in plans. (Jenna Mackley / Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)

A recent report from the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee highlighted the issue. It said meeting the TMDL “tasks water quality managers with counting practices implemented and thereby diverts attention from the question of whether those practices generate the predicted pollutant reductions.”

The report — Achieving Water Quality Goals in the Chesapeake Bay: A Comprehensive Evaluation of System Response — says there is a high degree of uncertainty about the effectiveness of efforts to control polluted runoff. Monitoring and model estimates often do not align.

Part of the reason, the report said, is that the effectiveness of BMPs may vary widely from place to place and perform differently under different conditions. In addition, it can take years for some BMPs to become fully effective. Plus, it is difficult for BMPs alone to offset the impact of more livestock and fertilizer.

“We treat the nonpoint source BMPs like they have the same absolute certainty as upgrades at point sources,” said Kurt Stephenson, an agricultural economist with Virginia Tech and an author of the recent report.

Findings reported by the the U.S. Geological Survey in 2021, based on water quality monitoring, demonstrate long-term reductions in nutrient pollution in the Susquehanna River, shown here near Wrightsville, PA. Long-term nutrient loads in the Potomac and James rivers are trending downward, too. Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

The report cites the need for more local water quality monitoring and analysis. Much of the monitoring in Bay rivers is done at scales too large to be certain about what factors drive observed nutrient trends.

It called on the Bay Program to be more flexible in promoting innovative approaches that might produce better, and more measurable, results than simply counting BMPs. But it would take time to test new approaches in a local area, monitor results, then apply them elsewhere if successful.

Tight cleanup deadlines in the past have hindered efforts to ramp up localized monitoring that could help document whether runoff control efforts were producing the predicted results.

Monitoring streams is expensive, and it usually takes a decade or more to sort out year-to-year variations caused by weather and to identify trends. Bay cleanup deadlines have typically been set roughly a decade into the future, and that doesn’t allow enough time for monitoring to inform decision-making.

“Our goals always said we’re going to do all this way faster than that,” said Tom Simpson, a retired University of Maryland soil scientist who for years headed a Bay Program committee overseeing nutrient reduction strategies.

The lack of monitoring to ground-truth model estimates generates skepticism of the results. Many in the agricultural community say the model does not accurately reflect actions on the ground and leads to frustration with the Bay effort. Within the Bay Program, the Dartmouth College survey found that many in management believe the model underestimates nutrient reduction efforts. On the other hand, many in academia believe the model overstates progress.

Thinking locally

Ultimately, meeting Bay goals may mean spending less time looking at the Bay and more time looking at the rivers that feed into it — and how people impact those waterways.

The recent science report suggests that focusing nutrient reduction and habitat improvement projects on shallow areas along the Bay and small “triblets” that feed into it could produce faster results, with more benefits to the aquatic life that is supposed to benefit from the cleanup.

That approach could support public engagement too. Making significant improvements in a waterbody as large as the Bay in a short time frame is difficult, the report notes, and goals toward that end can create unrealistic public expectations. Bay report cards highlight the situation when they issue basically the same grade each year.

“There’s a certain amount of fatigue when every year the entire Bay gets a ‘C’ or ‘D,’” said Denice Wardrop, director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, which helps coordinate Bay-related activities at research institutions, and an author of the recent report. “If you report on the condition of things at the local scale, tons of people are engaged and involved.”

Future Bay goals, many suggest, could be more effective if they put as much emphasis on restoring healthy streams as they do on estimating nitrogen and phosphorus reductions.

“The Bay is a hugely important impaired waterway, you just can’t get around that,” said Garber of the Stroud Water Research Center. “So we’ve got to deal with that impairment. But we can’t put our local stream and river impairments — not just in Pennsylvania but in the other states as well — at a much lower level or priority and expect to make progress.”

Stroud’s Ehrhart said their work shows that engaging farmers with information about the health of local streams, and how their actions can improve it, is the most effective means of getting buy-in for conservation work.

“If farmers continue to be confronted with the Bay message, they dig in their heels, they defend their farms and agriculture generally, and they question the model, and it becomes a blame game,” Ehrhart said. “If you instead shift to the stream and the practices around their own stream, there’s an ability for us to get them working together to change their stream in a much faster timeline. It really creates a very, very different discussion.”

Those could also build more public engagement, something many say has historically been limited — or rushed — in the Bay cleanup process. And it’s particularly important for working with farmers, who manage so much land in the Bay watershed and are often asked to take actions that are counter to their own economic interest.

Kathryn Brasier, a professor of rural sociology with Penn State, and some of her students reviewed the development of Pennsylvania’s county action plans.

While some, like Lancaster, had effective stakeholder engagement and led to consensus plans, others had less time and support. That led to a top-down, Bay-centric approach, as opposed to discussions about how actions might improve local waterways, Brasier said.

Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts may require even greater emphasis on streams and rivers. Dave Harp

“The speed with which they had to act meant that they couldn’t have the kinds of deep conversations and longer-term cultural change,” said Brasier, who is also vice chair of the Bay Program’s Agriculture Workgroup. “That is what I think is needed.

In many cases, it wasn’t allowed to really bloom in a way that focused on relationship building, rather than just filling out a report.”

Lisa Wainger, an environmental economist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who has conducted numerous interviews and listening sessions with farmers, said the Bay effort would have been further along had such farmer engagement taken place earlier, but “we wasted a bunch of time not listening to them and not engaging them.”

“Now,” she said, “we basically have to reset the clock for the agricultural community because we need to figure out what works. We need to figure out what’s compatible with diverse operations. And we need to figure out what are the right incentives for getting those practices implemented on enough farms.”

To some extent, that may be starting to happen. Adam Ortiz, the EPA regional administrator, has spent a large amount of time in Pennsylvania, especially Lancaster County, meeting with farmers, the Farm Bureau and others working on agricultural programs.

He’s gotten generally high marks for his efforts; he and state Farm Bureau representatives — who had sued the EPA over the TMDL a decade ago — have appeared at many joint events promoting Bay efforts. “We’re focused on developing buy-in and cultural change among small farmers,” Ortiz said.

Whether that continues remains to be seen. What is certain is that the path forward will certainly be longer and require new thinking, new approaches and investments in the infrastructure that restoration work is built on: people, water quality monitoring and the streams that flow into the nation’s largest estuary.

“If there’s anything [the 2025 goal] should be doing right now,” Corbin said, “it should be making us have those conversations that we put in the box and stuffed under the bed for such a long time. It’s time to have them.”

This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.

Karl Blankenship is editor-at-large of the Bay Journal.

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