Water quality, fuzzy math and the EPA

by Matt Reese

Everyone wants clean water, but fuzzy math from the EPA may be going too far in terms of regulation.

Yeeeeikes! We just got our heating bill and, although we have been setting our thermostat lower and lower in the last couple of years, it has been getting higher and higher. At the same time, unleaded fuel has been on a steady climb in the last few weeks and many people are still suffering from unemployment and an income that is going the wrong direction.

With so many numbers in our lives, wouldn’t things be easier if we could just fudge them one way or the other to get a more desirable outcome? Of course, no one can do that, except, apparently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It is the job of the EPA to regulate, and the fine folks at the Agency in the current Administration seem to particularly love their work. In their quest to further regulate water quality through the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) permitting process, it seems that the EPA is working with numbers that favor their favorite pastime.

The EPA is developing a TMDL rule setting the pollution loads that are acceptable in the Chesapeake Bay Region that could likely serve as the basis for a national model in the future. Throughout the process, it was noticed that some of the numbers being used by the EPA were a little off.

To further investigate the issue, a coalition of agricultural groups hired LimnoTech, one of the nation’s leading water sciences and environmental engineering consulting firms. The resulting LimnoTech report found a number of significant inconsistencies between the EPA’s estimate of the Chesapeake Bay’s existing “nutrient diet” and numbers used by the Obama Administration’s Department of Agriculture.

For example, many grain farmers are employing no-till and other types of conservation tillage to reduce runoff from their fields containing sediment and nutrients when compared to conventional tillage. The amount of conservation tillage in the Chesapeake Bay region, which has a proven ability to improve water quality, is very different depending on whether you ask the USDA or the EPA.

The LimnoTech report states: “USDA estimates that seven percent of cropped acres are under conventional tillage, five 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…EPA estimates that 50 percent of cropped acres are under conventional tillage and 50 percent are under conservation practices. In general, the cultivated cropland conservation practices incorporated in USDA’s model framework are documented and statistically valid in sufficient detail to allow a general understanding of practices accounted for in the modeling, the assumptions made regarding specific conservation practices, and the level of implementation. A similar level of detail and documentation is not, however, available for the EPA model framework.”

The 38% difference between just this one set of numbers can make a very big difference in the reality of water quality and the need for further regulation.

“If USDA’s numbers are correct, agriculture has already significantly surpassed EPA targets for reductions in sediment and phosphorus,” said Rod Snyder, the National Association of Corn Growers Director of Public Policy. “It is crucial that farmers in the Bay watershed receive appropriate credit for their efforts to be good stewards of our land and water resources.”

Other inconsistencies in data and modeling were found for land use and total acreage of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, hydrology, assumptions about conservation practices, livestock operations, and manure application.

“Because the TMDL will have immediate economic consequences, the quest for more accurate data must begin immediately,” said Michael Formica, National Pork Producers Association chief environmental counsel. “Should EPA proceed without an unassailable data set in hand, all stakeholders in the Bay should question not only EPA’s pollution assignments, but also its diet for cleanup.”

The regulation that results from the EPA’s TMDL rule will have the potential to significantly impact the viability of agricultural operations in the region. The livelihoods and the economy of the Chesapeake Bay could be altered and farms could go out of business. With such consequences, we should at least expect that the numbers being used to develop the regulations are accurate. The EPA needs to create realistic, workable TMDL rules that result in clean water, but also preserve the agriculture and economy of the region.

Let’s hope that the EPA gets a better handle on accuracy with their fuzzy math before finalizing the program, because excessive regulation at the cost of jobs, the economy and family farms simply does not add up.

The LimnoTech report is available at http://nutrientpolicy.org/ANPC_News.html.

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