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Connecting Agriculture to Clean Water Goals

In Harrisburg, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Just as exciting as the holiday season, this week, the Capitol Region hosts the 101st Pennsylvania Farm Show – the largest indoor agricultural exposition in the nation. 

We in Pennsylvania have a lot to be proud of, including the many years of accomplishments by those in the farming community. Since its founding, the Keystone State has been a leader and champion in farming and has led the U.S. in the dairy and fruit fields, especially. 

Everyone enjoys the milkshakes and animals at the farm show, but what stands out most to me is the return of an open dialogue on the importance of clean water. Kicking-off the week-long celebration last Thursday, the PA Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and members of the agriculture sector unveiled the annual butter sculpture, paying homage to the long-standing tradition of conservation in farming. As witnessed by the recent survey results from the Penn State Agriculture & Environment Center, in addition to studies from partners in the environmental community, our neighbors in the agriculture sector are doing a lot of good work, but the work is far from over. This year’s sculpture is a great hat-tip to the sector's deep culture of stewardship and taking care of our common natural resources -- but we face a formidable challenge in Pennsylvania.

Home to more than 62,000 farms, the Commonwealth is in the midst of an “Agriculture Re-Boot” initiative. This initiative aims to assist the agriculture sector in becoming more compliant with the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – a regulatory tool in the U.S. Clean Water Act, which describes a value of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards. 

By all measures, Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector is far off-target for achieving its benchmarks for the 2017 EPA mid-point assessments, and the 2025 targets seem unrealistic unless we change our approach statewide. The agriculture run-off of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment erosion are the largest causes of pollution in the Susquehanna. Pennsylvania is the largest issue in getting the Bay to where it needs to be. And it doesn’t need to be that way.

With the new political landscape in mind, the way forward is unclear, but we know one thing: water quality and land-use practices are interconnected. In order to keep our water clean in our pristine trout streams, restore the Susquehanna, and bring the Chesapeake Bay back to life, we need to take action. 

We need to be smart about our choices and behavior, be creative with new solutions, and not be afraid of stepping out from our ordinary routines. We need to provide more cultural sensitivity to the needs and concerns of rural Pennsylvanians and farmers, but educate and reach out to our neighbors at the same time. Imagine a day where we can freely swim, fish from, and paddle the Susquehanna and its tributaries without fear of contamination.

While these challenges seem large and obtuse, there is a great deal of opportunity for tangible work and projects “in the weeds.” It is essential that we work and support our local farmers and conservation districts to make a real change in the quality of water in Pennsylvania. This can be done by establishing riparian buffers and streambank fencing on our own land, building rain gardens and landscape that helps collect run-off water in our backyards, advocating for increased stormwater and green infrastructure in your local municipalities, or becoming a voice for statewide and federal policy. 

Be sure to have conversations with your local farmers, join a local watershed association, do your best to buy food locally, and stay engaged with the connection between agriculture and protecting the water we drink. 

The coming weeks will set the stage for water policy in Pennsylvania. The Chesapeake Bay office at the DEP will be releasing its stakeholder meeting schedule for the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan for the Bay clean-up and we hope that you will join and make your voice known. 

Call or email your local legislators to support efforts in the new legislature to implement a water usage fee, increase state funding for the DEP in this year’s state budget to carry out the WIP, and increase funding for best management practices for farmers and conservation districts. As we enter into an important year, remind and hold accountable Governor Tom Wolf and his administration, your local congressmen and women, and Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey for this renewed focus on the marriage between agriculture, clean water, and the Chesapeake Bay. 

Water connects us all. Pennsylvania has a long and fruitful history of conservation and agriculture. Let’s work together and protect these precious resources so that we can continue to build our clean and abundant future. We have the ability to make a difference and give life.

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