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Pollution-reduction projects run behind as GA considers relief for farmers

People fish on a grassy beach. Verdant green woods line the background
Crixell Matthews
VPM News (File)
People fish in the Chesapeake Bay during 2021. Efforts to reduce pollution that flows into the Bay are behind schedule in Virginia.

The bills would delay when the state can take further action to meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.

The General Assembly is considering delaying potential mandatory agricultural pollution controls that could be implemented if Virginia fails to meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.

Although Bay state leaders acknowledge that 2025 nutrient reduction goals, set in 2010, will likely be missed, HB1485 sponsored by Del. Michael Webert (R–Fauquier) and SB1129 sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger (R–Augusta) seek to take some pressure off of farmers.

Cleaning up the Bay — which is to say, halting the pollutants that flow into it and revitalizing damaged ecosystems — has been a major issue across the watershed for decades. In 2010, the watershed states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia) committed to making and following a series of Watershed Implementation Plans.

The WIPs are roadmaps to meeting cleanup goals, or Total Maximum Daily Loads. They include specific targets in pollution reductions and strategies needed to make those a reality. Each member state has adopted new plans as fresh data becomes available.

Virginia environmentalists say the state’s first two WIPs substantially reduced pollution released from individual, traceable point sources — like wastewater treatment plants. There’s significant funding in proposed budget amendments this year to continue that work.

The phase III WIP, approved in 2019 after a midpoint review of TMDLs, puts a focus on the state’s largest decentralized, non-point pollution source — agriculture. Runoff from farmland across the entire Bay watershed carries debris into waterways that's rich in nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, and damages ecosystems downstream.

“About 90% of the overall work in terms of nutrient reduction that still needs to happen has to come from agriculture,” said Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The state has identified a broad range of agricultural best-management practices to reduce nutrient runoff into streams. Farmers can get financial and technical assistance in implementing those practices through the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share program. Some practices, like stream exclusion — installing a fence to keep livestock out of streams — are long-lasting and cost effective.

If certain watershed goals, including stream exclusion, are not met by 2026, state law allows further steps, including regulations mandating best-management practices and nutrient management plans, to be considered.

Despite those pressures, the actual implementation of BMPs through the state’s 47 soil and water conservation districts has been slow. Sanner said the VACS program was regularly funded below what the Department of Conservation and Recreation said was needed to meet the goals until the last year of Gov. Ralph Northam’s tenure. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has continued to support full funding of the program.

Even though funding now is coming through, Kendall Tyree, executive director of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Districts, said it will take time to complete the required projects.

“There is a significant backlog in terms of if you're a producer, farmer who would like something like a fence to get your cattle out of the stream,” Tyree told VPM News.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into BMP installations, and the districts are currently training new employees brought on to manage and use the influx of cash. In a perfect world, Tyree said, funding for technical assistance workers would have come through two years earlier.

“It takes about two years to train field staff to make sure they ... build rapport and relationships with farmers to the point where in their community, they have enough recognition and support, and have worked with farmers long enough to encourage and help them with the VACS program itself,” Tyree said.

Del. Webert said the measure is a matter of necessity due to the construction delays — which he compared to the unfinished General Assembly building and tunnel.

“When it comes to these things, [farmers] have the same difficulty as the Virginia government does and that every other construction does,” Webert said.

The House bill would delay when the state can take further actions to meet cleanup goals, pushing it from 2026 to 2030. It recognizes that Virginian farmers might need more time to install pollution controls with the help of VACS, Webert said. The Senate version extends the deadline from 2026 to 2028 and can be extended to 2030 if the General Assembly fails to meet DCR’s “full funding” benchmarks.

Sen. Hanger’s bill would also set up stakeholder work groups and studies to better understand the state’s progress toward its WIP III goals. The first study would be due July 1, 2024.

Del. Alfonso Lopez (D–Arlington) patroned a 2021 bill, which Northam signed, that outlined funding, studies and implementation for agriculture, stormwater and wastewater pollution controls in line with WIP III. But two years later, none of the required studies and reports have been completed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“It was bad, because we have certain goals we have to meet with the EPA and with our regional partners,” Lopez said.

Stakeholders have said gathering new information will help the state understand where there are gaps in BMP implementation. The GA is also considering a budget amendment that would fund another agricultural needs assessment, which sets the “full funding” benchmark for the body.

Although Lopez is disappointed that the 2025 goals seem out of reach, he’s hopeful that with redoubled efforts from soil and water districts, full funding of nutrient reduction programs and yearly implementation studies, the state can “right the ship.”

“But we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We can’t keep delaying this. Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is good for the environment, it’s good for economic development, it’s good for tourism, it’s good for everything,” Lopez said.

Stakeholders say the house version of the bill will likely be conformed to the Senate-approved language next week. Lawmakers must finish work on the legislation by the end of the General Assembly session.

This story is powered by the 2023 People's Agenda.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.