Record funding to reduce agricultural pollution should help clean up the bay

A surplus of dollars in Virginia’s coffers this year means record funding for state programs that help farmers pay for practices like streamside fencing that reduce the amount of pollution in the bay. of Chesapeake, but nationwide inflation could blunt some of the impacts of the much-wanted cash.

The flow of funding is “phenomenal,” said James Davis-Martin, the Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. However, he warned, inflationary pressures are driving up estimates of what it will cost to meet ambitious ‘pollution regime’ targets set by the federal government and the seven jurisdictions that lie in the watershed. of the bay.

If previously we thought $116 million was fully funded, with inflation at 8%, that’s probably not fully funded,” he said.

As the 2025 deadline looms to clean up the bay, the nation’s largest estuary and a key driver of Virginia’s economy, state officials focus on reducing pollution from farms. About three-quarters of the cuts Virginia has yet to make under a federal mandate are expected to come from the agricultural sector.

Reducing the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that runs off farms doesn’t come cheap. The fences needed to keep livestock out of streams are expensive to build, as are wooded buffers that can filter runoff before it enters streams. Both can set land aside, reducing farmers’ net profits. Cover crops that reduce erosion need seeds.

Yet many farmers are willing to embark on pollution reduction practices as long as the state “does[s] it is economically viable for them to do so,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council.

Virginia’s main tool for winning over farmers is its Best Farm Management Practices Cost-Sharing Program, under which the state pays a portion of the cost of a practice, sometimes up to 100%.

“I think history has shown that our farmers are willing to do these things if the cost-sharing money is there,” Del said. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who serves on the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

But while Virginia officials consider cost-sharing one of the best tools for reducing agricultural pollution in the bay, the General Assembly has never allocated enough funds to meet all of the program’s needs.

That changed this year. A historic budget surplus caused by an injection of federal relief funds and a better-than-expected economic recovery led to a windfall for the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund. By law, this fund must receive 10% of any surplus — which in this case was $313 million.

A lot of that money goes to the cost-shared program. In the next fiscal year alone, $81 million is earmarked for cost sharing in parts of the state within the bay’s watershed. An additional $15 million will go to soil and water conservation districts to provide technical assistance to farmers, and an additional $11 million will bolster operations and maintenance needs.

The spending marks the first time Virginia will meet all of the state’s agricultural funding needs, as identified by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“The General Assembly gave us significant funding this year, and we have three more years” before the 2025 cleanup deadline, Don Wells of the Hannover-Carolina Soil and Water Conservation District told the State Soil and Water Conservation Board last week. “It’s important that we get as many agricultural BMPs as possible in the field.”

A focus on agriculture

Since 1987, adjacent states and the federal government have struggled to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its 64,000 square mile watershed.

Most bay problems come from three sources: nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

In excessive amounts, nitrogen and phosphorus lead to overproduction of algae in waterways which deplete oxygen and cause mass death of plants, fish and crustaceans. Sediment clouds the water, preventing sunlight from reaching aquatic plants and disrupting ecosystems.

Farms are not the only source of this pollution – sewage treatment plants and urban runoff also contribute. But big investments have already been made in upgrading sewage treatment plants, which are responsible for most of the state’s pollution reductions to date.

Virginia has had “great success” in reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants, said Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It gave us a head start…and it masked the fact that other sectors haven’t made as much progress.”

“Agriculture is the largest industry, the largest area of ​​land and, unsurprisingly, the largest sector contributing to pollution,” she said.

But over the years, some farmers have been reluctant to invest in management practices that reduce runoff, not only because of insufficient state support, but also because of the unpredictability of funding.

“It’s as much about the roller coaster of money as it is about annual amounts,” said Martha Moore, senior vice president of government relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

Confidence that sufficient funding will be available for farmers over the next two years “lets them know it won’t be a waste of time” to go through the cost-sharing process, Shreve said.

‘The whites of the target’s eyes’

Environmental and agricultural groups said the additional cost-sharing money and increased investment in technical assistance will help the state move toward its 2025 goals.

“We’ll be able to see the whites of the target’s eyes,” Sanner said.

But many also sounded a note of caution. Not just inflation, but supply chain delays and labor shortages are likely to slow progress, Davis-Martin said.

“With federal infrastructure spending, there’s a lot of money on the streets to build projects — building projects, road projects, telecommunications projects,” he said. “It’s the same universe of entrepreneurs that we’re trying to hire to do that.”

Virginia Farm Bureau’s Moore also noted that while record funding in the 2023-24 budget is a “significant step” toward achieving the bay’s goals, the influx of cash cannot entirely erase years of weaker investments. .

“We’ve been asking for this for 10 years, so you can’t say just because you get two years of full funding that’s all you need,” she said.

Bulova said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are committed to investing in agriculture, especially as the 2025 deadline nears.

“I’m absolutely concerned that inflation is mitigating the impact of this money,” he said. “What I think we’re doing is pushing ourselves in the right direction, but it’s not something unique and done.”

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