AND A WATERSHED RUNS THROUGH IT

Posted on January 19, 2017 by Michael M. Meloy

My roots are in central Pennsylvania near the dividing line between the Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds.  The creeks follow the valleys, flowing away from each other and carrying water that will ultimately rejoin in the Chesapeake Bay.  It is a rich agricultural area with a farming legacy that goes back to the mid-1700s.  It is also ground zero for the continuing struggle to improve degraded water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, one of biological jewels of the eastern United States. 

One of my best friends is a dairy farmer.  He has faithfully carried on a family tradition reaching back over multiple generations.  He is an excellent farmer.  He finally sold the dairy herd this fall, buffeted by plunging milk prices and lack of help in shouldering the relentless grind of running a dairy operation.  The barn where I have spent hundreds of hours over the course of my life now stands empty and quiet.  The cows are gone and the milk tank is dry.  Unfortunately, this is a story that is repeating itself with remarkable regularity as the number of dairy farms continues to shrink both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country.

For those with a single-minded focus on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, the demise of another dairy farm in Pennsylvania may be a cause for quiet celebration.  Even though Pennsylvania does not border the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River drains approximately 46 percent of the state, including some of its most productive farmland.  The Susquehanna River contributes almost half the fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay.  The Bay and the River are inextricably linked. 

In 2010, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay focusing on loading rates for nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.  EPA identified agriculture as a key contributor of these pollutants.  Each state within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Pennsylvania, is attempting to figure out how to achieve the targets that EPA has set for reductions in nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.  The process is fraught with difficulties, pushing the envelope of technical feasibility, legal permissibility and political acceptability.  The process is also underscoring the limitations of the tool box under the Clean Water Act to solve truly complex and multi-dimensional water quality problems.  

If the goals that EPA has set for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay under the TMDL are to be met, a financially-sustainable agricultural sector is vital to that outcome.  Runoff of nutrients and sediment from farms may be the immediate focal point but crafting solutions that will facilitate farms being able to operate in the future is critically important to the long-term health of the Chesapeake Bay.  If farming operations are forced under, prime farmland will change use and be taken out of production.  Development of former farms and the runoff from such development carries its own challenges for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.  Moreover, rolling back changes in land use after they have occurred is almost impossible to achieve. 

Preserving farming operations holds significance extending well beyond water quality.  In the coming decades, food production is likely to become one of the key issues that not only our country but the world will face.  Loss of farms also alters the fabric and social bonds of rural areas in many detrimental ways.  

On January 6, 2017, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released its 2016 State of the Bay Report, a bi-annual evaluation of the health of the Chesapeake Bay.  While the Chesapeake Bay received failing grades on certain key metrics, the overall health of the Bay received a grade of C-, the highest grade that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has given since it began making such assessments more than 30 years ago.  Progress is being made – slowly and painfully but surely.  At the same time, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia have collectively lost more than 600,000 acres of farmland (about half the size of the Delaware) since 2002.  One can only hope that the twin goals of saving the Chesapeake Bay and saving agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can harmoniously coexist.