Farmers’ efforts to help environment benefit their Lancaster County farms

Riparian buffers similar to this one on a farm in New Holland will be among the types of projects funded with new grants to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Trees and shrubs along the banks prevent erosion, provide a cool, shady habitat for fish, and reduce the number of nutrients that end up in the bay.

THE ISSUE

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an independent conservation organization that serves as a watchdog over the bay’s six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed, recently issued its biennial report card, titled State of the Bay. The news was not good. Record rainfall last year “flushed enormous amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and debris off our lands and into the bay,” stated William C. Baker, the foundation’s president, in a Jan. 8 story reported by LNP’s Ad Crable. Citing that rise in pollutants from rainwater runoff — most of which came from Pennsylvania — the foundation assigned a grade of D-plus to the bay cleanup effort for 2018.

Everyone wants a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Making it happen is the complicated part.

We encourage everyone to read the State of the Bay 2018 from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In just 16 pages, it illuminates a topic of vital importance.

This is a tangled issue that weaves together federal, state and local governments, underfunded and entirely unfunded initiatives, and the complex but improving science of sediment and stormwater management.

It is an issue that has been further complicated by climate change.

And it is an issue with people — farmers — at its heart. Agriculture strongly defines Pennsylvania and is woven into the fabric of Lancaster County. Improving the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is important for all, but we must find solutions that are within the financial reach of our farmers and smaller communities during economically challenging times.

Some progress

What’s frustrating is that efforts were progressing reasonably well on improving the health of the Chesapeake. For example, the foundation’s new report states that the number of dead zones, created by nutrient pollution, is decreasing. And some species, such as rockfish (striped bass), are faring much better today than they were in the 1980s.

“Pennsylvania has been working diligently to be a good partner on bay cleanup efforts and is working collaboratively with farmers and other stakeholders to implement best practices for sediment control in the watershed area,” the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection states. “These efforts are bearing fruit.”

But not enough.

And new obstacles have surfaced.

“The blueprint is working, but the system remains dangerously out of balance,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Baker noted in Crable’s article. “And new challenges like climate change and a federal administration attempting to roll back fundamental environmental protections are threatening success.”

This is troubling. We cannot have a federal government that is at loggerheads with our long-stated environmental protection priorities. And climate change will bring daunting challenges for every sector of our lives — our waterways will be no exception.

Lancaster County, as we’re all tired of hearing, had its wettest year in recorded history in 2018, with more than 60 inches of rainfall. That put more stress on sediment control and drainage into the watershed.

And excessive rainfall exacerbates other problems. Because of aging infrastructure issues that are yet to be solved, 171 million gallons of a rainwater-sewage mix spilled from the Lancaster city sewer system into the Conestoga River during storm-heavy August.

“Storms like these are the new normal — just one of the local impacts of global climate change,” the state DEP wrote. It added that the myriad problems created by climate change can no longer be tackled adequately at the state level but instead will require “leadership and investment from the highest levels of the federal government.”

Without government help, too much of the battle to mitigate the flow of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay watershed will fall onto the shoulders of our struggling farmers, who are already at the mercy of fluctuating commodity prices, international trade disputes, severe weather and new kinds of insect pests.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation agrees. “Pennsylvania’s farmers are facing tough economic times and can’t implement the necessary (pollution remediation) practices on their own,” Baker said. “(Pennsylvania) must join Maryland and Virginia to fund proven clean water initiatives to help farmers. (And) if the state Legislature does not fund efforts to reduce pollution in its next session, (the federal) EPA must hold Pennsylvania accountable.”

Aiding the efforts

We are fortunate to have other groups helping in this environmental battle.

We applaud the efforts of the Lancaster Farmland Trust and Trout Unlimited, to name just two such organizations.

Additionally, a new public-private coalition called Lancaster Clean Water Partners emerged in 2018 to help Pennsylvania meet its water-quality goals in Lancaster County. Its proposals include reducing the amount of manure spread on county farm fields by 25 percent; supporting state efforts to require farmers to adopt conservation plans to reduce runoff; expanding the use of cover crops by 40 percent; improving stormwater controls in urban and suburban areas via local land-use ordinances and rezoning; and, crucially, getting more Plain Sect farmers on board with these initiatives.

Peter Hughes, founder of Red Barn Trading Co., a Lancaster-based consulting firm for farmers, told LNP’s Crable last October that major reductions in pollution from agriculture can’t happen here without the aid of Amish and Old Order Mennonite farmers.

Says Christopher Thompson, manager of the Lancaster County Conservation District: “As much as we talk about the Bay, remember this is a local issue about the quality of our clean water. Everyone benefits from clean water, so everyone has a part to play in it. None of us can do it alone.”

Indeed. And even our combined efforts have not been nearly enough.

In school, a grade of D-plus is close to failure.

We cannot afford to fail the Chesapeake Bay, one of our nation’s most crucial ecosystems.