According to the NRCS, agricultural land makes up less than 30% of the Chesapeake Bay watershed area. A recent multiagency USDA Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) made an effort to quantify the environmental effects of conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed area. The project did not specifically investigate livestock operations but targeted conservation approaches being used on cropland. The CEAP results showed farmers have been making good progress in reducing sediment, nutrient and pesticide losses from farm fields through conservation practices throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

Dave White, chief of the USDA NRCS, says the study confirms that voluntary, incentives-based conservation approaches are delivering significant and proven results. Most cropland acres in the area have structural or management practices, or both, in place to control erosion. Nearly half of the cropland acres are protected by one or more practices such as use of buffers or terraces. Reduced tillage is used in some form on 88% of the cropland.

The study also shows opportunities to improve conservation practices to reduce nitrogen in subsurface flows. The CEAP report indicates suites of practices such as soil erosion control and appropriate rate, form, timing and method of nutrient application could help address soil erosion, nutrient runoff and nitrogen leaching concerns.

Some agricultural experts contend that discrepancies exist between the nutrient levels cited by the EPA and the USDA data. The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau (PFB) and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) have joined in a lawsuit against EPA for its implementation of a TMDL plan in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. PFB and AFBF assert that the EPA exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act to establish the TMDL limits and that the science used by EPA to create the model  used to develop the TMDL plan is flawed.

“Aside from exceeding its authority, EPA has failed to account for many best management practices that significantly reduce runoff into Pennsylvania streams and the Chesapeake Bay,” says PFB President Carl T. Shaffer. “By ignoring the real amount of no-till farming cover crops used by Pennsylvania farmers, EPA’s model underestimates the on-the-ground action taken by farmers and overestimates the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment coming from farms.

“Farmers have already played a major role in helping to improve water in Pennsylvania that flows into the bay and will continue to do so regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.”