USDA reviews policy options to meet Chesapeake Bay TMDL limits

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Conserving and responsibly using the land and its resources is a common priority among farmers and ranchers across the United States.

United States EPA While agricultural producers across the nation invest time and money to voluntarily implement conservation practices, sometimes they are faced with complying with mandatory federal regulations, like the total maximum daily load (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay watershed that was established by EPA in 2010. This TMDL, which covers 64,000 square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, sets stringent, numerical limits on nutrient and sediment emissions with the goal of fully restoring the Bay by 2025, with 60 percent of the practices in place by 2017.

Though the TMDL continues to be center of a court battle to determine if EPA overstepped its authority under the Clean Water Act by mandating how nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff should be managed, researchers at USDA’s Economic Research Service have taken a look at various policy options, and the costs associated with those options, that could be implemented to help meet the mandates of the TMDL. The researchers say agriculture is the largest source of nutrient emissions in the watershed and that two issues facing agriculture must be addressed in order to meet the limits, including increasing the use of “the most effective nutrient management practices,” and improving management and transportation of manure to be used as a substitute for commercial fertilizer on farmland.

The USDA researchers looked at policy options to meet nutrient limits including performance-based regulations (such as strict, across the board emission limits), performance-based incentives (such as emission taxes and credits), design-based standards (regulations on practices or inputs), and design-based incentives (payments for conservation practices).

The researchers first looked at performance-based policies. They concluded that while performance-based policies may come at the lowest cost among all approaches to meeting TMDL limits by treating only 12 percent of the watershed’s cropland (treating the acres that can reduce the most pollutants at the least cost), they are hard to implement for non-point sources. Alternatively, they say targeted design-based policies can be made more efficient through requiring best management practices (for example a combination of cover crops, nutrient management and erosion controls). However, this approach comes at a cost, according to the study, with the researchers claiming the most efficient design-based approach was 4-5 times more expensive than the optimal performance-based approach and treated more than twice as much land.

With regard to animal agriculture (mostly poultry and dairy in the watershed region), the report says that sector of agriculture contributes approximately 17 percent of the nitrogen entering the bay and 26 percent of the phosphorus but adds that much of the manure nitrogen and manure phosphorus could be safely applied to cropland. Again though, this comes with a cost, which the researchers estimate to be between $15 million to $27 million per year. According to the study, an increase in the share of cropland using manure from 30 to 90 percent reduces hauling costs in the watershed about 15 percent. It concludes that education and technical/financial assistance for manure management could increase the willingness of crop producers to substitute manure for commercial fertilizers.

For every pro related with a policy approach, there comes a con (sometimes more than one). This is an issue that has drawn the attention not just of those affected within the watershed but throughout the country as the Chesapeake Bay approach could be taken in other watersheds across the United States. While the court case (American Farm Bureau v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; case number 13-4079) is pending, the clock is ticking toward timelines established by EPA. Farmers and ranchers have a track record of working with public and private partners to protect and conserve the land and its resources, hopefully a resolution can be reached that does not involve federally dictated and restricted land and water use. While we are each entitled to our own opinions about the overall TMDL and the results of the study conducted by USDA, the fact is implementing practices or complying with strict, mandated nutrient limits will come at a cost so it’s important for all to have a full understanding of all options available.

The full study is available here. What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment below. 

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