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News Opinion Editorial

A victory for the Chesapeake

Disasters don't make big headlines when they are averted, but last week's decision by a U.S. district court judge in Pennsylvania upholding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan was a big victory for environmentalists. But more important was what didn't happen: Had the judge ruled otherwise, the future of the nation's largest estuary — and Maryland's most precious natural resource — would have been bleak.

The American Farm Bureau had brought suit against the EPA's Chesapeake Bay plan, which sets a total maximum daily load, or TMDL, of pollutants flowing in from the watershed's six states and the District of Columbia. Farm bureau lawyers argued that the plan used flawed science and intruded into states' rights.

But what the organization really objected to was the likelihood that states will have no choice but to reduce pollutants, primarily nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments, from non-point sources (generally, pollution that runs off land after a rain storm rather than flows from a factory pipe) including farms. Clearly, the fear was that the EPA may use the Chesapeake Bay model to eventually heighten Clean Water Act enforcement on farmers elsewhere across the country.

The chief problem with the bureau's argument was that, as Judge Sylvia H. Rambo pointed out, the EPA has actually been successfully regulating non-point pollution for more than a quarter-century, issuing tens of thousands of TMDLs throughout the United States. Clearly, the agency not only has the authority to regulate pollution that runs off land, it has the responsibility to do so to uphold water quality standards.

The Farm Bureau lawsuit was a mistake from the beginning. We strongly suspect that farmers who actually live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed want a cleaner bay, too. As the organization so often points out, farmers pride themselves on being good stewards of the land and water. And how awful it would have been if Judge Rambo had upheld the lawsuit and thus cast farmers as the villains in Chesapeake cleanup efforts.

Make no mistake, the federal TMDL process offers the best chance in a generation to make serious inroads in Chesapeake Bay pollution. Not only because it considers a wide range of sources of pollution but because it will hold all feet to the fire — Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Delaware all face federal oversight.

Will farmers have to change some of their practices? Almost certainly. But many are already making these efforts and have been for years — creating buffers around streams or creeks, using no-till planting methods to reduce soil erosion, building structures to contain animal waste, planting winter cover crops, and on and on.

Many of these reforms come with a price, but in many instances, there are government-financed cost-sharing opportunities as well. The goal is not to run farmers out of business — land that is actively farmed is far less damaging to the environment than when the same acreage is developed into housing tracts or shopping centers — but to reduce the excess nutrients discharged into the local waterways.

Officials with the American Farm Bureau say they are likely to appeal the judge's decision to a higher court. We hope they will reconsider. The more farmers dig in their heels on this issue, the less sympathy they garner from the general public, particularly in Maryland and Virginia where the bay is so treasured.

It would be far better for farmers (and home builders who supported the bureau's lawsuit) to stop attempting to block cleanup efforts through self-serving litigation and instead declare themselves full partners in the bay's restoration effort. Everyone must do their fair share if real progress is to be made and the damage already done to water quality is to be reversed.

Of course, the same might be said of those blustery politicians in central Maryland who decry the "rain tax" required to pay for storm water runoff projects or perhaps their rural counterparts who hate the "flush tax" that's financed upgrades to wastewater treatment plants. It would be nice if fighting pollution was a pain-free effort, but it rarely is. The more realistic goal is to make the true culprits pay whenever and wherever possible, and that's what the EPA's court-approved and science-based pollution diet plan is all about.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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