Farm lobby must step aside, because the Chesapeake Bay can wait no longer

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Here are the interest groups that would benefit from legislation before Congress to really, finally clean up the Chesapeake Bay: Boaters. Fishermen. Swimmers. People who live on the shoreline. People who like to visit the bay. People who eat fish, crabs and oysters that come from the bay.

Here's the main interest group fighting the bill: farmers.

Guess which side looks likely to win?

The potent national farm lobby is poised to block a pair of bills that would set a firm deadline of 2025 for cutting the flow of pollutants by enough to restore the bay's health, according to both supporters and opponents of the measures.

Two Maryland Democrats, Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Elijah Cummings, are the leading sponsors of the similar bills. They would give federal and state governments genuine authority for the first time over all kinds of polluters -- including farmers -- in the six-state Chesapeake watershed.

That would be a major advance, not just for our region but also the rest of the country. For nearly four decades, the farming industry has succeeded in preventing the federal government from extending mandatory measures to stop it from polluting the nation's water. Many other major polluters, such as sewage treatment plants and factories, succumbed to such regulation long ago.

To their credit, the nation's farmers have cut back on pollution to a significant degree through voluntary steps encouraged by government subsidies. It hasn't been enough, though. Farm runoff is the largest single source of pollution in the Chesapeake.

Some farmers "are doing the right thing, helping to preserve the bay for future generations, but there are a lot of farmers who haven't done that," Cardin said. "What's fair about this is all farmers [would] have to meet certain standards."

The American Farm Bureau doesn't see it that way. It says the legislation is technically unfeasible, would discourage development and raise farmers' costs. The bureau spent $5 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"It's going to do nothing except cut into profits of agriculture. The way that Mr. Cardin's bill goes about doing things could pretty much squeeze farmers to the point where they would have to go out of business," said Don Parrish, the bureau's senior director of regulatory relations.

Cardin and others in his camp acknowledge that farmers need some special treatment. It's a lot harder to measure and control runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from hundreds of fields than from an individual waste-water facility or industrial plant. The bill includes grants for technical assistance to agriculture and strengthens a pollution trading system to help farmers manage the new requirements.

With help like that to keep them in business, I think farmers should be expected to do their full share of what's necessary to clean up the bay. Past efforts to restore the Chesapeake have failed repeatedly, even thought it's well known what steps are needed. In particular, farmers must plant cover crops in the winter to absorb excess nutrients, convert farmland to buffer strips along stream banks and shorelines, and put manure piles on slabs or in sheds.

Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is already pushing such actions. But legislation is needed to be sure the EPA has authority to require them. A law also would ensure continued progress if a future administration is less sympathetic to the cause.

Farmers' objections today are reminiscent of the ones made by industrial polluters who (unsuccessfully) fought the 1972 Clean Water Act.

"These are the same arguments that were made by industry going up to the 1970s: 'We wouldn't be able to do it. It's too expensive.' And of course we were able to achieve those goals" in reducing pollution, said George Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water (hitherto known as WASA).

Hawkins, a former EPA lawyer who teaches environmental law at Princeton, supports the Cardin-Cummings approach. He said it was fair to ask more of agriculture in part because pressure to save the bay has fallen disproportionately on urban and inner suburban residents who've had to pay to upgrade sewage facilities.

"I don't believe farmers have faced any more difficult economic circumstances than lower income residents of the District of Columbia, Baltimore or Philadelphia, who are paying for it through higher water rates," Hawkins said.

Cardin's bill is scheduled to go before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next week, and the panel is expected to approve it. However, the bill faces an uphill battle in the full Senate.

The farm lobby thinks Cardin and company are in too much of a hurry.

"We've had an effect on the Chesapeake Bay for 400 years. The Clean Water Act has been in place for 30 years. We're not gong to change things back, or make any dramatic effect, in 10 to 15 years," said Wilmer Stoneman, associate director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau.

That's shortsighted. We've known for a generation what needs to be done. Let's do it right, and now.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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