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Published December 23, 2013, 09:56 AM

Chesapeake Bay water rules could impact the Upper Midwest

Annapolis, Md., is 1,500 miles away from the northern Red River Valley, but Tom Hebert says what goes on there could have big impacts on the future of farming here.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Annapolis, Md., is 1,500 miles away from the northern Red River Valley, but Tom Hebert says what goes on there could have big impacts on the future of farming here.

Hebert, an agricultural environmental consultant and policy lobbyist, has been particularly focused on studying the effects of a state-federal partnership called the Chesapeake Bay Project, which was begun 30 years ago. Since 2009, the project has been developing basin-wide Total Maximum Daily Load for farmers and others to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Hebert argues that some of those plans impose rules that don’t solve problems, but simply add unnecessary costs to farmers and could put some of them out of business.

The same could happen elsewhere, including the Red River Valley.

“It’s definitely a risk,” Hebert says.

Recently, Hebert spoke at the Prairie Grains Conference in Grand Forks and toured North Dakota Pig Cooperative’s sow complex near Larimore.

Hebert’s consulting firm works for the Agricultural Nutrients Policy Council and he spoke on its behalf. The council includes about 45 agricultural and related organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, as well corn and pork groups, among others.

“They came together to pool policy, technical and legal resources to work on agricultural nutrients and water quality issues because there were so many challenging policies being advanced,” Hebert says.

Excessive measures?

The Environmental Protection Agency standards sometimes lead to excessive measures in the Chesapeake Bay, Hebert says.

“It’s going to force investment that is probably not going to be any better at protecting the environment than traditional methods.”

He advises farmers to go to state officials promoting their own, serious, reasonable and scientifically sound goals and objectives.

Other officials at the Prairie Grains Conference said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is in the process of creating a “nutrient loss reduction strategy.” The agency wants to support “numeric nutrient criteria” for nitrogen and phosphorus under the Clean Water Act. MPCA hasn’t made its proposal, but the EPA’s default approach has been to make agriculture-affected water equal in quality to the state’s most pristine or “least disturbed” water, which MPCA says is excessive.

In 2011, the EPA issued a memo asking states to come up with a problem-solving approach. Hebert is advising farmers to get involved in this process in their own state.

“The challenge is, are we going to do this in a way that involves regulators who don’t necessarily really understand farming — or only partially understand the specific conditions on each of these farms — to tell farmers what they have to be doing to reduce nutrient loss? Or will we be able to rely on farmers’ great problem-solving abilities?” he says.

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center is working on 12 “Discovery” farms throughout the state, monitoring surface and tile drainage — runoff, sediment content and other quality factors — to help determine what kinds of load reductions farmers might be able to accomplish.

Nitrogen necessity

“This is the problem we have: Nitrogen is essential for life — for plant growth, for protein and amino acid production,” Hebert says. “Nitrogen serves that purpose in part because it’s really mobile, once it gets into biologically available forms. When you mobilize enough nitrogen in the soil profile in the spring, for the plants to begin to take it up, it’s very vulnerable to loss if we get an unexpected rain event.

“A certain amount of that is unavoidable, if we’re going to feed everybody. It just is,” Hebert says. “We can make significant improvements by applying it at the right times, in the right forms, using the right application methods.”

Farmers need to make sure their efforts are counted, Hebert says.

In the Chesapeake Bay model, some calculations miscounted the amount of corn yield than is actually occurring, which makes it appear that more nitrogen was being lost in the environment, or that more meat birds (chicken broilers) were living in the watershed than actually were, changing the manure production. He says environmental officials “do the best they can with limited resources, but they make assumptions that sometimes are wrong,” he says.

The Chesapeake Bay project involves a 65,000-square-mile watershed. It involves six states, hundreds of counties and thousands of townships and municipalities.

Counting everything

Manure use from meat birds and dairies will need to be curtailed in the Chesapeake Bay region.

“They’re going to have to find more acres to apply that, and many of those acres are going to have to be outside of the watershed” because of phosphorus concerns, Hebert says. Farm advocates believe farmers may also be required to use cover crops — planted in the fall after the cash crop has been removed or harvested. The cover crops trap nitrogen and other nutrients and hold them until spring when other cash crops can use it.

Hebert believes some of the restrictions are illegally imposed — a contention a district court hasn’t agreed with. “Maybe the appeals court will,” Hebert says.

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