PennFuture Blog

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The Importance of Agriculture to Clean Water

The recent completion of the Pennsylvania draft Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) marks a crossroads for water quality in our local rivers and streams. The WIP — which more than 100 stakeholders in federal, state, and local governments, as well as non-governmental and governmental agencies, and citizens of Pennsylvania developed through countless hours of research, outreach, and strategic engagement — outlines how Pennsylvania will work to clean up local waterways.

While the WIP does not meet the pollution reductions necessary to meet Pennsylvania’s nitrogen and phosphorus goals, it does meet the pollution requirements necessary for sediment reduction. However, there is a major price tag to fully implement the WIP as it is currently written: as much as $257 million annually, which the state is unlikely to provide.

Four of the top five pollution reduction practices come from the agricultural sector, including agriculture compliance ($33.1 million), soil health ($32.9 million), grass buffers ($9.2 million), and forested buffers ($41.4 million). With over 33,000 farms located in the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it cannot be overstated how critical a role agriculture will play in the restoration of our local rivers and streams. 

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency’s established a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which mandates a specific amount of pollution that can flow into our waterways by means of stormwater, wastewater, and agricultural runoff. Pennsylvania is drastically far behind in achieving our TMDL, and it is more important than ever for clean water and environmental organizations like PennFuture to work alongside agriculture interest groups to clean up local rivers and streams. 

Public outreach and education will be the key to meeting our pollution reduction goal. PennFuture is working with other environmental organizations and agriculture groups to increase the use of best management practices, such as cover crops and no-till farming. 

Cover crops are used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, increase biodiversity and bring a host of other benefits. Cover crops also reduce runoff, add organic matter to the soil, and increase resilience in the face of erratic and increasingly intensive rainfall, as well as under drought conditions.

No-till farming leaves the soil mostly untouched, which increases levels of crop residue left behind and nearly eliminates soil erosion. No-till also drastically increases water infiltration, which results in less runoff of contaminated water as well as reduces the amount of water needed for crops.

Like most things, conservation practices come at a cost. New equipment to implement best management practices and planting buffers is expensive. And with 6,000 farms closed between 2012 and 2017 due to retirement and declining income, many of which were mid-sized family farms, it is easy to see why there is such hesitancy to adopt new practices. Successfully engaging and building trust within the agriculture community, and increasing the amount of farmers using conservation practices such as cover crops and no-tll,will lead to increased yield, improved soil health, and improved local waterways. 

The time has come for environmental organizations and agriculture groups to work together to address these issues. We must build trust and alliances within the agricultural community by increasing outreach and public engagement. We must also continue to advocate for increased water quality protection, while simultaneously addressing funding mechanisms to get farmers the resources necessary to implement conservation practices so they can continue to be stewards of their land. 

Clean water and agriculture interest groups can’t restore our waterways individually. Our groups must work together to fully achieve our pollution reduction goals, and it will not be easy. But if we want our children and future generations to enjoy the beauty of our rivers and streams, it is more important than ever to work together. 

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