Photo above: Countryside in spring by A. Aubrey Bodine (Copyright©Jennifer Bodine)
By Tom Horton
Bay Journal News Service
Losing farmland. For decades around the Chesapeake Bay that’s been as sure a bet as death and taxes. It’s a significant part of how Virginia and Pennsylvania figure to meet EPA-mandated pollution goals — because to our sorrow, modern, intensive agriculture remains a water polluter.
But surprise: The latest (2007–12) census of U.S. agriculture reported a net gain in watershed farmland, about 125,000 acres.
What’s more pertinent, indicative of a larger concern is the higher grain prices driven by national and world markets that caused the gain in crop land. High grain prices in recent years have slowed planting forested buffers along Chesapeake waterways to filter polluted runoff from ag and developed lands. Government payments to encourage buffers can’t compete with the profit from grain.
Other areas outside our control
This is just one of several areas where the destiny of the Chesapeake Bay may lie outside of the control of the Chesapeake Bay Program, the state-federal partnership that is trying to restore the Bay. Consider climate change. Even if the United States and the rest of the world get serious about reducing CO2 emissions, we’ve virtually guaranteed impacts on the Bay that will get worse before they get better:
- Rising sea levels will degrade tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, leading to a loss of habitat and an increase in sediment pollution.
- Warming waters will kill eelgrass, a key species of submerged aquatic vegetation that is already on the southern limits of its range. Warmer water also holds less of the aquatic oxygen lacking in the Bay.
- Then there’s fracking for natural gas. Debates rage over how much this pollutes aquifers, and whether it will really reduce CO2 by replacing coal. Meanwhile it’s certain that in Pennsylvania alone, fracking will remove tens of thousands of acres of forest for drilling pads, pipeline rights of way and haul roads—and forest is our least polluting land use.
- The broadest “uncontrollable” is population, doubling from 8 million within the watershed since the 1950s, and most likely tripling in coming decades. This drives everything from more pollution to more intensive agriculture. No government, environmental or scientific organization in the watershed wants to talk about stabilizing population.
- Then there are natural cycles like the North Atlantic Oscillation, an atmospheric pressure difference between Iceland and the Azores that fluctuates unpredictably. It can alter for years or decades the prevailing winds on the Chesapeake. This can make aquatic oxygen better or worse at the same level of pollution control.
EPA factors these into its model
In theory, the Bay Program, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has a handle on these uncontrollables. The EPA sets total maximum daily loads of pollutants, essentially upper limits on the pollution a healthy estuary can take.
So if more farm acres or more people, or less forest or less eelgrass or fewer wetlands result in more pollution, the EPA cranks this into its computer models and tells the states they must reduce more pollutants to compensate for the changes.
In the real world, there are large time lags between when we see these uncontrollables coming, and when we can assess their impact, react — and then figure out how well our solutions work. And there’s so much “noise” in a shallow estuary with a huge drainage basin. Wet or dry years cause fluctuations in how much pollution enters the Bay in runoff. Climate change, as we continue to increase CO2, is a moving target.
To the good, there are circumstances outside the Bay Program’s control with positive effects. Better enforcement of the Clean Air Act is lowering pollution to the Bay. Building islands to hold dredged material from shipping lanes is restoring wetlands. A national economic slowdown may have helped to put a crimp in sprawl development around the watershed. The recent federal listing of CO2 as a pollutant should help with climate change.
What to do?
So what to do, as it’s unlikely the good aspects of uncontrollables will come close to offsetting the bad ones?
Start by communicating more, and gathering better and more timely information about just how dynamic our situation is. Don’t wait until 2017, when the EPA plans to assess how we’re progressing toward the clean water deadlines in 2025.
Deal right now, with the most predictable uncontrollables, like sea level rise. Retreat wherever appropriate from the Bay’s edges; leave room for rising seas to create wetlands as they destroy existing ones. Build reforestation into the price of all that “cheap” new fracked gas to reflect its real cost.
Require proven ag pollution controls like winter cover crops that suck up polluted runoff. Regulate the spreading of animal manure. Tightly monitor farm practices to reduce pollution. Too much is now computer-modeled, not measured, and we don’t know what’s working.
And, we can begin to honestly ask whether it’s likely we’ll have water quality in a Bay with a watershed that holds 24 million people that’s as healthy as when there were 8 million.
Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for the Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service