Saturday, December 2, 2023

Record Funding to Reduce Agricultural Pollution Expected to Aid Bay Cleanup

Virginia farmers are willing to build fences to keep cattle out of streams and implement other measures to filter runoff but need financial assistance from the state. (Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce for The Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — 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 decrease the amount of pollution running into the Chesapeake Bay, but nationwide inflation could blunt some of the long-sought money’s impacts.

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

If previously we thought $116 million was full funding, with 8 percent inflation it’s probably not full funding,” he said.

With a 2025 deadline fast approaching for cleaning up the bay, the nation’s largest estuary and a key engine of Virginia’s economy, state officials are focusing on reducing pollution from farms. About three-quarters of the reductions Virginia still has to achieve under a federal mandate are expected to come from the agricultural sector. 

Cutting the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that flows off farms doesn’t come cheap. Fences needed to keep cattle out of streams are expensive to build, as are forested buffers that can filter runoff before it flows into waterways. Both can take land out of operation, cutting into farmers’ bottom lines. Cover crops that cut down on erosion require seed. 

Still, many farmers are willing to get on board with the pollution reduction practices as long as the state “make[s] it economically viable for them to do it,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. 

Virginia’s main tool to convince farmers is its Agricultural Best Management Practice Cost-Share Program, under which the state kicks in a portion of a practice’s cost — sometimes as much as 100 percent. 

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

But while Virginia officials see cost-share as one of the best tools for reducing agricultural pollution of the bay, the General Assembly never allocated enough funding to meet the program’s full needs. 

That changed this year. A historic budget surplus caused by an infusion of federal relief dollars and a better-than-predicted economic recovery led to a windfall for the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund. By law, that fund must get 10 percent of any surplus — which in this case amounted to $313 million.

Much of that pot of money is going to the cost-share program. In the next fiscal year alone, $81 million is earmarked for cost-share in those parts of the state within the bay watershed. An additional $15 million will go to soil and water conservation districts to provide technical assistance to farmers, and an extra $11 million will bolster operations and maintenance needs. 

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

“The General Assembly has recognized us with significant funding this year, and we have three more years” before the 2025 cleanup deadline, Don Wells of the Hanover-Caroline Soil and Water Conservation District told the state Soil and Water Conservation Board last week. “It’s important we get as much ag BMPs on the ground as possible.”

A focus on agriculture 

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

Most of the bay’s problems stem from three sources: nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. 

In excess quantities, nitrogen and phosphorus lead to overproduction of algae in waterways that deplete oxygen and trigger mass die-offs of plants, fish and shellfish. Sediment clouds water, preventing sunlight from reaching aquatic plants and disturbing ecosystems. 

Agricultural operations aren’t the only source of this pollution — wastewater treatment plants and urban runoff are also contributors. But heavy investments have already been made in wastewater plant upgrades, which are responsible for many of the state’s pollution reductions to date. 

Virginia has had “terrific success” in curbing pollution from wastewater plants, said Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “That has put us way ahead … and it has obscured the fact that other sectors have not made as much progress.” 

“Agriculture is the largest industry, the largest land area and, not surprisingly, 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 rollercoaster of money as it is the amounts in each year,” said Martha Moore, senior vice president of government relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. 

The certainty that ample funding will be available to farmers over the next two years “lets them know it’s not going to be a waste of time” to go through the cost-share process, said Shreve. 

‘The whites of the eyes of the target’

Environmental and agricultural groups said both the extra cost-share money and more investment in technical assistance will help the state’s progress toward its 2025 goals. 

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

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

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

Moore of the Virginia Farm Bureau also noted that while the 2023-24 budget’s record funding is a “significant step” toward meeting the bay goals, the influx of cash can’t entirely erase years of lower investment.

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

Bulova said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are committed to investments in the agriculture sector, particularly as the 2025 deadline draws near. 

“I am absolutely concerned about inflation blunting the impact of this money,” he said. “What I think we’re doing is pushing us in the right direction, but this isn’t something that’s one and done.” 

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Related Articles