Friday, March 1, 2024

Virginia Hunting for ‘Lost Practices’ to Progress Toward Bay Cleanup Goals

Dairy cows cattle livestock in Stanley. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Are they under the couch cushion? Were they left in the pockets of the last pair of pants you were wearing? Have you checked behind the fridge?

Those could be some of the questions state officials are asking as they try to find several thousands of acres of farmland that had pollution control measures installed at one point but aren’t being accounted for now in calculations of Virginia’s progress toward cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

“We know they exist, in a county, somewhere,” said James Martin, director of the Division of Soil and Water Conservation at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The missing acres were a topic of conversation Sept. 28 during the first meeting of a workgroup devoted to assessing how far Virginia has come in installing stream buffers and stream fencing to reach Bay cleanup goals.

Fencing and buffers, known in government language as best management practices, or BMPs, are seen as critical tools to prevent excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer and animal waste from entering waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. To figure out whether each state in the watershed is meeting its obligations under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, regulators enter the number of acres where a certain practice has been installed into a model that then estimates how much pollution is being blocked as a result.

Currently just under 20,000 acres in Virginia have installed stream fencing to reduce nitrogen loads, Martin told the workgroup Sept. 28, with a target of 72,000 acres by 2025.

But James Riddell with the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association appeared puzzled by that number.

“Wasn’t the figure in 2017 at one time 56,000?” he asked. “What happened with all those acres?”

Martin offered Riddell one theory: Virginia once had thousands more acres of stream fencing in the model, but many were dropped in 2017 when the Chesapeake Bay Program, the coordinating body for cleanup efforts, began requiring the state to verify every 10 years that the practice was still in place.

The 56,000 acres “was the queue of everything that would have been implemented to that point,” Martin said. “When they put the verification framework in place, a bunch of those old ones that hadn’t been inspected in the last 10 years dropped out of the model.”

Overall, DCR calculates there are hundreds of thousands of acres tied to “lost practices,” including 14,000 acres of stream fencing, 5,000 acres of grass buffers, 20,000 acres of riparian forest buffers, 75,000 acres of agricultural lands converted into shrubs, grasses or trees, 244,074 acres of prescribed grazing lands and about 1 million acres of animal waste storage facilities.

For all of these, DCR has a record that best management practices were installed at one time but possesses little more information. Including the lost practices in the model, or enrolling farm operators who once adopted them into programs that will help them maintain their BMPs, are seen as significant ways Virginia can get closer to its Bay cleanup goals.

“I just think that there’s so much opportunity here,” said Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr at the meeting.

But Martin acknowledged that some of the lost practices may be gone for good — discontinued and no longer reducing pollution. Others, though, may still be around.

“The truth is probably somewhere in between,” Martin said. “Certainly they’re not all on the ground continuing to function, but I bet you some of them are.”

Identifying the lost practices is crucial to not only getting an accurate accounting of Virginia’s cleanup status, but also ensuring that state dollars are being handled responsibly, workgroup member Jay Ford, Virginia policy director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told the Mercury later.

“We’re tasked with getting a clear-eyed view. If we don’t have a percent of [lost practices] that is still in place, putting that number out there kind of just muddies the water,” Ford said. “The reason there are expiration dates is because they expire — sometimes the fence post rots or the land changes. There’s a multitude of things that can happen.”

“It’s a question of not just how do we get to our Bay restoration targets as quickly as possible,” Ford added. “It’s also our fiduciary responsibility.”

Because the lost practice numbers simply account for acres that were enrolled under either a state or federal assistance program but lack any unique identifying information, officials now face the challenge of making contact with those landowners to verify that the BMPs are still functioning.

In 2017, when the verification requirement began, DCR paid members of Virginia’s soil and water conservation districts to ground-truth if practices still existed and sent out a survey with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Martin told the Mercury after the meeting. But connecting with farmers hasn’t found much success, added DCR spokeswoman Rebecca Jones, as “farmers prize their independence. We want to respect that.”

“We’ve been trying to chase this down since the rules changed,” Martin said.

The state is now turning to the Natural Resources Conservation Service Agency, the federal counterpart to DCR, to make followup contact with landowners.

“NRCS recognizes that verification of agriculture practices is a resource intensive process and is continuing to work with VA DCR, Dept. of Ag, [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency], and other Chesapeake Bay Program partners to meet the Chesapeake Bay” cleanup goals, said Edwin Martinez, the agency’s Virginia state conservationist, in an email.

Enrollment in Virginia’s agricultural cost-share programs, which provide state assistance to farmers to encourage them to install the BMPs, has in the past lagged due to a lack of certainty that funding would continue, Martha Moore, vice president of governmental relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau, previously told the Mercury. But the past two years have seen record funding for the programs, and the General Assembly this winter tied the state’s voluntary installation deadline for farmers to the provision of adequate funding.

The Virginia Farm Bureau is now trying to convey to farmers that stable funding “is going to be there,” Moore said. The group aims to use winter producer meetings to reach farmers who may have previously had these practices installed while also spreading awareness of other BMPs they could adopt.

“That’s going to build that trust level,” Moore said.

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