USDA Report Ties Chesapeake Bay Pollution More Closely to Agriculture

Many farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have adopted conservation practices aimed at stemming nutrient runoff from their fields, but a full 81 percent of the cropland in the watershed needs additional nutrient management, according to a recent USDA draft study.

Many farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have adopted conservation practices aimed at stemming nutrient runoff from their fields, but a full 81 percent of the cropland in the watershed needs additional nutrient management, according to a recent USDA draft study.

The report, available in PDF format at this link, shows that most cultivated farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed releases excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, making it a major source of the nutrients responsible for the degraded condition of the nation's largest estuary. States included in the Chesapeake watershed include Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The report said that runoff of nitrogen, which comes from poultry and livestock production, was "the most critical conservation concern in the region."

It says farmers need to apply fertilizer with more care, paying greater attention to the rate, timing, form and especially the method of application. Such measures maximize the availability of nutrients for crop growth while minimizing environmental releases, according to USDA's research.

Area farmers generally received high marks for conservation techniques they have employed to reduce soil erosion, with USDA reporting widespread soil erosion controls and noting that only 26 percent of the cropland requires additional erosion control. However, the report also concludes that erosion controls alone can exacerbate the nitrogen loss problem by reducing surface water flows and increasing subsurface infiltration.

Therefore, says USDA, successful management of cropland requires a suite of practices, including both soil erosion control and consistent nutrient management.

Although only 10 percent of the land in Chesapeake Bay watershed is cultivated cropland, that portion is responsible for 25 percent of the sediment, 27.5 percent of the phosphorus, and 32 percent of the nitrogen loading, according to the study. The study did not assess farmland used for hay and pastures.

The National Chicken Council and National Turkey Federation are concerned that proposed legislation to control water pollution in the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed could jeopardize poultry production in the region and similarly affect all U.S. output.

The national trade groups –– along with the Virginia Poultry Federation and Delmarva Poultry Industry, which represent growers and processors –– have joined the American Farm Bureau Federation and other farm groups to urge U.S. senators to block the proposal.

The plan would "have far reaching consequences for the entire United States" by transferring from state and local governments to EPA the authority to regulate runoff of nutrients, sediment and farm chemicals into the largest estuary in the United States," they say.

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