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Farmers, EPA clash over Chesapeake Bay regulations

Stricter Chesapeake Bay rules may hurt farmers, who say they’re already doing their part to clean it up.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launches a new effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, farmers find themselves swept up in the largest and most ambitious water-restoration project ever attempted in the United States.

Michael Bonfigli / Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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Lloyd McPherson bought his farm in the Shenandoah Valley, along the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, more than 20 years ago. Back then, the Chesapeake was far from sight and mind. But now, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launches a new effort to clean up the bay, Mr. McPherson and his farming neighbors find themselves swept up in the largest and most ambitious water-restoration project ever attempted in the United States.

"It's very, very complex," says McPherson, casting an anxious glance at his pasture on a snow-covered hillside above Christians Creek. "Nobody knows what they're going to demand."

In late December, the EPA set limits for nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment pollution in each of the bay's major tributary rivers. These limits are part of a TMDL, or total maximum daily load – a regulatory mechanism created by the Clean Water Act.

While thousands of TMDLs have been created over the past several decades, none has been attempted on such an enormous scale. The bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed stretches across parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Del­a­ware, Virginia, and West Virginia, plus Wash­ington, D.C. It is home to almost 17 million people, as well as nearly 500 large public and industrial waste-water treatment plants.

"This isn't your mother's TMDL," says Roy Hoagland, the Chesa­peake Bay Foundation's vice president for environmental protection and restoration. "This is something significantly different in the arena of restoration of waters in this nation."

But for many farmers, the TMDL is hardly the best thing since the combine. The EPA has identified the watershed's nearly 88,000 farms as the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the bay. Many in the agricultural industry fear that the cost of increased pollution controls will place onerous financial burdens on them.

So on Jan. 10, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau filed suit in federal court to block the TMDL.

"We're very concerned that ... [the TMDL is] going to push agriculture out of the watershed," says Don Parrish, AFBF senior director of regulatory relations.

This isn't the first time that people have tried to decontaminate the Chesapeake. It's been the subject of cleanup efforts since the 1980s, when nutrient and sediment pollution reduced its famous oyster populations to an estimated 1 percent of historic levels and oxygen-de­pleted "dead zones" began covering up to 20 percent of the bay each summer.

While some progress has been made, such as the blue crab population's recent rebound, the overall situation remains little improved. In its 2010 "State of the Bay" report, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation declared the bay ecosystem "dangerously out of balance."

Hence the EPA's unprecedented cleanup effort, which may get less federal funding as congressional Republicans push for budget cuts. An amendment to the recently passed House budget bill, added by Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, would eliminate all EPA funding to develop and implement the TMDL. Though it is unclear if it will prevail in final negotiations.

A key aspect of the cleanup plan is that each state within the watershed will decide how to meet the EPA's targets, says Jon Capacasa, director of the water-protection division for the EPA's mid-Atlantic region.

In other words, states will choose their strategies – whether increased control of runoff from farms, stricter regulation of industrial effluent, restriction of fertilizer use on residential lawns and golf courses, or some combination of these options.

Right now, states are drawing up detailed plans for pollution reductions on a stream-by-stream scale throughout the watershed. The due date for these plans will be determined soon.

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