Conservation

THE ISSUE

A Penn State University survey shows that farmers in 41 Pennsylvania counties have done considerable conservation work, at their own expense, to keep pollution out of streams that drain into Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania has been cited by federal authorities in the past for failing to meet its pollution-reduction commitments to clean up the bay. Some 6,782 farmers responded to the survey, which was endorsed by the state Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Everyone wants clean water.

But there’s a difference between merely wanting clean water and taking action to keep our waterways free of pollutants.

It now seems Pennsylvania’s farmers have been doing more for the conservation effort that we thought. For that, they should be given full credit.

According to the Penn State survey, and as LNP reported, “a half-million acres had undergone nutrient and manure conservation work on farms that had not been counted by federal computer models that estimate pollution coming from states that drain into the bay.”

The survey also reported “1.3 million linear feet of fencing placed along streams to keep livestock out, 4,270 manure storage units or barnyard runoff-control systems, and more than 5,000 acres of stream banks that have been converted to environment-improving forested buffers.”

That’s a lot of work and a lot of money, most of which has come out of farmers’ pockets. And it’s understandable that the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farming group, was quick to react to the survey with a sharp toot of its own horn.

“Farmers have not received credit for a variety of conservation practices that significantly reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff in the bay watershed,” the bureau said.

Farmers deserve credit here, and we laud them for acknowledging a need and taking the initiative. This is an important step toward reducing pollution and protecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

But there is so much more to do, which explains why state environmental agencies and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation weren’t organizing a parade in response to the survey results.

The foundation called those results “impressive” but also said that “with over 6,700 miles of rivers and streams impaired by agriculture, the work is far from over in Pennsylvania.”

Last summer, the DEP began inspecting 2,000 farms in the counties within the watershed, including Lancaster. As LNP reported this week, a Lancaster County Conservation District review indicated that “about half the farms visited in the county so far did not have the required plans.”

That simply isn’t good enough, and Pennsylvania has clearly been lagging in its commitment to help clean up the bay.

There’s no disputing that runoff from county farms into the Susquehanna River is a key source of the pollution that threatens aquatic life in the bay. Allowing cattle to bathe and defecate in streams basically creates an open sewer. State Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat from Lancaster, told the LNP Editorial Board in September that he wanted a state law banning cattle from Pennsylvania’s waterways.

While there’s certainly merit to finding new ways to achieve compliance, we don’t necessarily believe that making a new law is the answer.

The state and the farming community must work together to help Pennsylvania meet its obligations. We’d like to believe farmers can do their part without the threat of prosecution hanging over their heads.

The recent inspections revealed the need for oversight and follow-up. If, for whatever reason, farmers can’t come up with a workable plan, the state should be able to provide proper guidance and present them with viable and affordable options to help them through the process.

But progress should be recognized and celebrated in its proper context. We commend those farmers who took action to help clean up our rivers and streams.

We now hope that everyone else involved in this fight understands that progress is only a good thing if it eventually leads somewhere.