Managing Nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay
Chesapeake Bay water quality has been a major concern for decades. High nutrient levels are impairing local waterways, affecting groundwater and causing a growing dead zone in the Bay.
The Bay states—Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia—committed in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement to significantly reduce pollutants by 2010, and have set goals to reduce nitrogen from agriculture by nearly 65 million pounds annually —approximately 60 percent of the reduction needed to restore the Bay and its tributaries.
Many farmers have adopted practices to improve water quality yet more farmers adopting more practices is needed. Providing more assistance to farmers is an effective way to keep farms thriving
while protecting the water quality of the bay.
We know that we need to help more farmers adopt conservation practices.
AFT Has a Plan
American Farmland Trust has begun an ambitious three-year project that combines:
- Field demonstration projects,
- Professional technical assistance,
- Cooperative conservation in targeted watersheds,
- Shaping policy that better fits farmers needs,
- Outreach to help farmers reduce use of nutrients on farms, increase adoption of best management practices, secure long-term farmland protection measures, and build support for agriculture's role as a key player in addressing environmental challenges.
Traditional incentives demonstrate that farmers will adopt a conservation practice if they have the tools, the professional assistance, and a risk-free environment for trial and error. However many farmers, like savvy business owners managing potential risks to their income, will add nutrients beyond University recommendations as a means to counter the unexpected. When farmers add more than the recommended nutrients levels, it could lead to a decrease in water quality:
- Excess amounts of fertilizer may result in high nitrogen and phosphorus loads; and
- Existing tillage practices rather than conservation tillage practices could result in higher sediment and phosphorus runoff.
To overcome this challenge, we’ll build upon our successful BMP Challenge, which reduces farmers’ use of nitrogen by guaranteeing income when they adopt new stewardship practices thus allowing them to alter their nutrient application with precision in a risk-free environment. In Pennsylvania, in partnership with Pennsylvania’s Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, along with the Chesapeake Bay Commission, we’ve taken this one step farther with the BMP Challenge for Reduced Nitrogen. Farmers reduced their nitrogen use by an additional 15 percent beyond recommended usage, or 27 pounds per acre.
At a cost of less than $3 per pound of nitrogen reduced, AFT's program is close to one-third the cost of reducing nitrogen from wastewater treatment facilities (estimated at $8.51 per pound), and below the $4.41 estimated by the Chesapeake Bay Commission for enhanced nutrient management.
If the BMP Challenge for Reduced Nitrogen were expanded statewide and all estimated 1.4+ million acres of corn participated, Pennsylvania could generate one third of its nitrogen reduction commitment under the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. Similar reductions should be applicable to other states. Over the next three years, AFT will work to scale up our BMP Challenge programs to 8,500 acres for a reduction of 200,000 to 270,000 pounds of nitrogen from the watershed.