Have water quality regulations gone too far?

By Matt Reese

Thus far, lawmakers in Ohio are making a concerted effort to prioritize reality, and not political perception, in the regulatory debate about water quality. This has often not been the case, particularly in watersheds in Florida and in the Chesapeake Bay that have received the most federal attention. There has been speculation that the Chesapeake Bay, in particular, could serve as a national standard for regulation across the country, and that Lake Erie is next on the list of federal regulators. Despite the national spotlight, Josh McGrath, associate professor and soil and fertility and nutrient management specialist at the University of Maryland, said the Chesapeake Bay nutrient management strategies are far from ideal because they too often favor the politics over the reality of the situation.

“Maryland is probably the most highly regulated state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which is probably the most highly regulated watershed for agriculture in the country,” McGrath said. “The Maryland Water Quality Improvement Act was passed in 1998 and the first thing that it did was mandate that farmers could not exceed the fertility recommendations of University of Maryland Extension. That was not something that we supported in Extension. All farmers in Maryland now have to have nutrient management plans that cover N and P. More regulation came into effect this past October. Now we have a federal law that includes things like mandating manure incorporation. All manure has to be incorporated — no more surface application of manure in a no-till system — and we have a lot of no-till in Maryland. There are mandatory buffer strips around surface water, mandatory stream exclusion for livestock and they have outlawed fall applications of nitrogen in wheat unless you have soil nitrate tests below 10 parts per million. There are other regulations as well, but these are the biggest concerns for farmers right now.”

The emphasis on mandates is a real concern for McGrath and others, because, while these mandated practices may be the right fit for some agricultural situations, they may be the wrong fit for others. The net result is that mandates can actually hurt water quality improvement efforts.

This field is home to eight cover crops this winter: annual rye, radishes, crimson clover, cahaba vetch, triticale, turnips, blue lupine and volunteer wheat. Is this a silver bullet for water quality?

“What we have done is turn the clock back in some situations. Agriculture has been progressively moving forward with technology that allows us to be more site specific,” McGrath said. “Some of the regulations, like mandating the incorporation of manure, may be fine on the coastal plain where it is flat, but in western Maryland with steep slopes and highly erodible soil, no–till was dominant. We’ve just turned back the clock to the 1970s by having these incorporation regulations across the board. Blanket regulations are moving us backwards with regard to site specificity.”

There is also quite a bit of emphasis, maybe too much, on the value of cover crops in Maryland.

“For a long time, cover crops have been viewed as the main tool for water quality in Maryland. A lot of this is tied to the way the federal policy is structured. The way the Chesapeake Bay model works, cover crops are the highest credit for nitrogen conservation,” McGrath said. “Cover crops are great, and in Maryland farmers are paid very well for growing cover crops. But, with N, a small grain doesn’t really take up much N until green-up. Nitrate leaching starts in August when corn senesces, which is our highest rainfall month. That nitrate has likely already leached out of the root zone by the time a cover crop starts taking up significant amounts of N. So, while cover crops are a good Band-Aid to recover some of the excess N in the soils, it is not recovering the majority of it.”

With such emphasis being placed on cover crops that, in reality, may not be doing as much good as the government models suggest, there is a significant political risk to agriculture in the future.

“Our lawmakers are investing all of their cost share dollars in cover crops because they have to meet the model load restrictions and not the real load restrictions. That is dangerous for agriculture,” McGrath said. “We’re going though all of the painful steps to improve water quality and if what they are making us do doesn’t really improve water quality, they will come back in 20 years and say, ‘Ag you cheated us. You told us you put in cover crops but you must not have because water quality is not better.’ I tell farmers they need to be cautious to make sure what they are doing is truly improving water quality so we don’t find ourselves in this predicament in 20 years.”

As Ohio agriculture begins to move down the path of water quality improvements, McGrath points out how important it is for farmers to be very involved with the process.

“In Ohio, regulations are being based upon direct water quality measurements, which is a positive. I think farmers always benefit when true science and true data are involved in the process. I know that some farmers are scared to get involved with this, but it really helps,” he said. “I always encourage farmers to be involved in the science and in the policy discourse. These broad laws across the state do not work for farmers and they do not work for improving water quality.”

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  1. I’m from Maryland and I agree with Mr. McGrath 100%. I have worked in conservation for over 45 years between MD and PA. Most of the cover crops in MD are planted so late to be of little value in nutrient uptake and erosion control! We waste close to $15-$18 million annual in cost sharing for cover crops. If farmers are the 1st environmentalist and the great stewards of the land; cover crop should be part of thier conservation effort.

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