By Nicole Cook
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The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently released its three-year Chesapeake Bay Watershed Action Plan outlining the agency’s priorities and goals for using current and future Farm Bill conservation programs to help farmers and forest landowners improve the water quality and health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
As the largest estuary in the U.S., the Chesapeake Bay has been the focus of efforts to improve water quality and associated fish and wildlife habitat for the past 35 years. Although the USDA’s most recent Conservation Effects Assessment Project report documented a significant reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus loss (20 percent and 44 percent, respectively) resulting from conservation practices implemented since 2006 and recent record gains reported in recovery of submerged aquatic vegetation or bay grasses, the Bay’s network of more than 150 rivers and streams spanning D.C., Virginia, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia continue to be contaminated with excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus as a result of a combination of factors such as a growing population, sewage treatment plants, agriculture, industrial plants and the atmosphere.
Agricultural land comprises nearly 30 percent of the watershed, and the region has more than 83,000 farms producing more than $10 billion in agricultural products each year. After forestland, agriculture is the largest land use in the watershed, and according to 2015 estimates from the Chesapeake Bay Program, agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay contributing 42 percent of the nitrogen, 55 percent of the phosphorous and 60 percent of the sediment.
The original Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed in 1983 to establish a framework for restoration for the Bay. In 2010, a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) water quality goal was established under the Clean Water Act (CWA). For more information about why and how the Chesapeake Bay is regulated under the CWA and the role TMDLs play in the regulatory scheme, check out this post or search this blog using “TDML” to see all of our posts related to TDMLs.
NRCS’s new plan emphasizes that there are many overlapping and complementary strategies that rely upon or can be supported by NRCS’s financial and technical assistance. The strategies may have federal, state, or more local drivers. In order to best compliment the varied strategies, NRCS has established a set of broad priorities and strategies in its new plan that may be consistently applied across the watershed, but which NRCS says are flexible enough to meet local conditions. The plan is centered on a targeted rollout of programs authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. They include helping producers implement conservation practices that improve water and soil quality as well as fish and wildlife habitat on hundreds of thousands of acres. NRCS has said that it will incorporate any new provisions from the 2018 Farm Bill into the plan.
The plan outlines NRCS’s goals for fiscal years 2018-2020. These include:
Helping producers implement conservation practices that improve water quality on 920,000 acres, improve soil health on 700,000 acres, and improve fish and wildlife habitat on 120,000 acres;
Training 4,700 public and private conservation professionals to plan and implement conservation practices that improve water quality, soil health, or fish and wildlife habitat;
Reaching 15,900 new, underserved or priority customers by 2020 about NRCS’s programs and services that address critical resource concerns in the Watershed; and
Increasing public participation by engaging 27,700 public and private partners and citizens in public meetings and committees to gain feedback about the agency’s programs and services in the watershed.
To learn more about NRCS’s activities in the Watershed, visit NRCS’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed webpage. For more information about conservation programs available in your area, contact your local USDA service center.