Watershed Plan offers Mixed Bag for Virginia Farmers

Stream exclusionVirginia’s largest agricultural advocacy group has mixed feelings about Gov. Ralph Northam’s recently released restoration plan for Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

“There are a lot of positive elements in the plan, but some of the mandatory requirements concern us,” said Martha Moore, vice president of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

The plan, referred to as the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan or WIP III, was designed to meet the state’s commitments to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution and restore the health of the bay and its tributaries by 2025. The recent version was released April 5, and public comments were accepted through June 7.

WIP III includes a focus on providing farmers with improved financial and technical assistance by adding new resources for Virginia’s Agricultural Best Management Practices Cost-Share Program and the Agricultural Best Management Practice Loan Program. For fiscal year 2020, the state committed $73 million for the cost-share program.

The added funding for agricultural cost-share practices is one of the positives of WIP III, Moore noted. Also appreciated is flexibility in implementing conservation practices based on site-specific variations, and possible future expansion of eligibility for farmers to receive tax credits for conservation practices when cost-share money is not available.

One of Farm Bureau’s concerns with the WIP III is a change in how farmers’ applications for cost-share funding are ranked by soil and water conservation district offices. “We want to make sure a change in the application process doesn’t delay implementation of farm conservation practices,” Moore explained.

Another concern regards a stipulation in the WIP III that if Virginia doesn’t have nutrient management plans implemented on 85% of farms with 50 or more acres by Dec. 31, 2025, then the plans will become mandatory for all farms that size. The state’s nutrient management plan program is up for review next fall, so requirements could change.

“We just think this is premature,” Moore said. “The plan should focus on voluntary compliance. When cost-share money is available, our farmers step up to the plate and implement all of these conservation practices that contribute to the health of the bay.”

Of even greater concern is the stipulation that farmers must fence livestock out of perennial streams. Moore contends that Virginia farmers who receive cost-share funding when it is available continue to voluntarily fence their cattle out of streams.

Earlier in 2019, the Chesapeake Bay Program announced water quality in the bay had attained its highest level since monitoring began in 1985. Virginia agriculture met its 2017 midpoint goals for nitrogen and phosphorous under the bay requirements, contributing to enhanced water quality.

“We know the bay is improving, and that our farmers are contributing to that effort,” Moore said. “We appreciate that some of our comments were reflected in the revisions to the governor’s plan, but we don’t support mandates that will make it more difficult for our farmers to continue their conservation efforts.”

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