HARRISONBURG — While other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are creating programs to provide farmers “safe harbor” from any future pollution reduction requirements, Virginia is the first to finalize one.
Producers who sign up for the voluntary program would earn nine years of “safe harbor,” or exemptions, from bay regulations in exchange for installing best management practices, such as fencing out cattle from streams. Agricultural runoff in the bay watershed, which includes the central Valley, has been responsible for at least some of the heavily damaged bay’s pollution problems.
The plan went live on the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall website Monday, but the program won’t become effective until December.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has been working on the plan since the General Assembly passed a law requiring it in 2011.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advocated so-called “safe harbor” or “agricultural certainty” programs of some kind in the bay watershed, according to James Davis-Martin, a DCR official working on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.
“They see this as a way to try and incentivize that voluntary adoption without going to a full regulatory approach,” he said.
Many agricultural and environmental groups have announced their support for the program, while others still have questions.
“There’s some feeling in the industry that [this] does give some farmers some certainty,” said Eric Paulson, executive director of the Bridgewater-based Virginia State Dairymen’s Association. “It’s not for everybody, but there might be some producers that it helps.”
Ann Jennings, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the foundation is disappointed with the final program because it dropped a requirement for a 35-foot riparian buffer on agricultural pastureland that was included in the draft plan.
Jennings said the change “hinders the program’s ability for advancing Virginia’s clean water goals.”
Dale Gardner, Chesapeake agricultural program coordinator with Annapolis, Md.-based Water Stewardship Inc., questioned whether Virginia’s farmers will use the program.
“You don’t hear a lot of people talking about it,” said Gardner, who used to own a dairy farm in Bridgewater. “I don’t think most of them probably even know about it, much less what it means and how it’s going to affect them.”
John Welsh, Rockingham County extension agent, also expressed concerns.
Farmers who participate may be left wondering, “What did I just protect myself from?” he said, adding that he hasn’t had a single farmer ask him about it.
No one really knows if, or when, agencies will start passing down agricultural regulations. Despite the looming threat of such mandates, farming-related regulations are still largely nonexistent when it comes to the bay cleanup project. But Davis-Martin said the bay’s total maximum daily load, a pollution “diet” meant to clean up the polluted waterway, will be reworked in 2017.
“It’s anybody’s guess as to whether that becomes more stringent or less stringent for the agriculture sector,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s likely that agriculture would be regulated anytime soon … but it’s conceivable.”