Hazy science

Created: 12/10/10 (Fri) | Topic: Issues

by Tracy Grondine

For people who live on the East Coast, the Chesapeake Bay has come to mean something more than beauty, great fishing and a diversity of other various forms of agriculture, like wild rice. It has come to signify politics-as-usual and hazy science.

For years, there has been a struggle surrounding the largest estuary in the U.S. regarding pollutants and conservation levels.  Unfortunately, the numbers and data that many groups and government agencies use as their linchpin to “Save the Chesapeake” are inconsistent at best.

A new report seriously questions data used by the Environmental Protection Agency to set pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay. Commissioned by a coalition of agricultural groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the report contrasts EPA’s estimate of the bay’s “nutrient diet” with those of the Agriculture Department.

The report was prepared by LimnoTech, one of the nation’s leading water sciences and environmental engineering consulting firms. It compared EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Loads with those in the draft USDA report, “Assessment of the Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region.” And the inconsistencies between the two sets of data are eye-opening.

For example, USDA estimates that only 7 percent of cropped acres are under conventional tillage, 5 percent of cropped acres have a level of tillage between conservation tillage and conventional tillage, and 88 percent of cropped acres are under conservation tillage (mulch till or no-till) practices. Whereas, EPA estimates that 50 percent of cropped acres are under conventional tillage and 50 percent are under conservation practices.

Further, the EPA model accounts for 28 percent less agricultural land (1.29 million acres) than the USDA model. EPA’s model assumes 600,000 acres or 20 percent of the agricultural land will need to be taken out of agriculture to meet the TMDL. If EPA’s numbers are correct almost 2 million acres will need to be shifted from crop production to pasture or forest in order to meet the TMDL.  

The differences in the numbers and the science behind them are so significant that they call into question the validity of EPA’s conclusions about the role of agriculture as the source of pollutant loadings and the need for aggressive measures now called for by EPA.
“Through the bay TMDL, EPA is implementing a rule that will have significant impact on economic growth and development, including food production, in the watershed,” said AFBF Senior Director of Regulatory Relations Don Parrish. “It is critical for EPA to get the facts right, including providing an accurate accounting for existing management and conservation practices before it imposes potential economic disaster on agricultural producers in the bay watershed.”
The report is calling for a “timeout.” It asks EPA to not issue a rule setting the bay’s pollution loads until the inconsistencies can be reconciled.

No one wants to harm the Chesapeake Bay, especially farmers. But, before rushing into excessive rules and regulations that could put producers’ livelihoods and food production at stake, it would be wise for everyone to take a breather and work together on real solutions justified by facts in the best interest of the bay.

Tracy Taylor Grondine is director of media relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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