A farm in Highland County. (Sarah Vogelsong/ For the Virginia Mercury)
Despite a 2020 compromise, debate over the deadlines for farmers to install fences and craft plans to reduce nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay has been revived in this year’s General Assembly.
House Bill 1485 from Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, seeks to extend the deadline for farmers to voluntarily adopt such practices from 2026 to 2030. If pollution reduction goals aren’t met by the deadline and the state has fully funded its program to assist farmers with implementing those practices, then farmers will be required to implement them. A similar proposal has been put forward in the Senate by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta.
Supporters of the change say it would give farmers the time they need to meet the deadlines after delays and increased burdens associated with COVID-19, supply chain issues and inflation. But opponents point to the necessity of the work, saying other sectors have dealt with COVID-19 issues and environmental groups have identified that 90% of Virginia’s remaining pollution reductions need to come from the agricultural sector.
Virginia has been encouraging farmers to install fences to keep livestock out of streams and plant row crops as buffers to absorb polluted runoff as part of its efforts to meet the state’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup commitments. While the federal government has set a 2025 deadline for states to meet their pollution reduction targets, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged it won’t be met.
The deadlines were set by 2020 legislation from Mason that allowed farmers a six-year runway to voluntarily take actions like fencing cattle out of streams before making those practices mandatory if the state found water quality goals hadn’t been met. Earlier versions of the legislation would have required farmers to have nutrient management plans and install stream fencing by July 2026, but testimony from dozens of farmers led to amendments that provided more flexibility.
Webert’s bill this year not only would push back the deadline but would make its enforcement contingent on the state fully funding assistance programs. It would also allow pollution reductions from other point or nonpoint sectors, such as wastewater and stormwater, to count toward agricultural reductions.
Webert said the delayed deadline is necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it difficult for Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts to get funding to farmers to implement necessary practices. Additionally, he said, a workgroup to review progress and provide recommendations never met, and farmers faced supply chain issues and a lack of contractors.
“When COVID hit …everyone involved faced many of the same difficulties and issues that we all faced in trying to accomplish goals that got halted,” Webert said.
But several Democrats questioned the move. Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, asked why the extension was four years when the pandemic lasted two and a half years, and why the groups hadn’t met electronically.
“I believe moving this to an arbitrary 2030, without having [the workgroup] done anything, I think is a little bit premature,” said Del. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk. “What I personally would like to see them do is actually do some work in the next two years, and then come back to us with a reasonable time frame that they feel like they would need to complete the work, and budgetary needs they need as well.”
Agricultural groups, including the Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia Agribusiness Council and Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, as well as the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, are backing the bill.
Kendall Tyree, executive director of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, noted only 55% of state funding for agricultural best management practices had been dispersed as of December. A 2030 deadline is more realistic, she added, as the staff who work with farmers require time to build trust and must undergo a roughly two-year certification process.
Martha Moore, vice president of government relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau, said budget amendments are being sought to help speed up the certification process, and funding aligns with a 2030 deadline.
“We believe this sets us up as being successful in achieving these nutrient load reductions,” Moore said.
But environmental groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association, Friends of the Rappahannock, Virginia Conservation Network and League of Conservation Voters said they couldn’t support the bill, saying the new deadline is too far away.
“It’s not appropriate to just move the deadline forward and continue to do the same thing that you’ve done for many years and assume that you’re going to get a different result,” said Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “There’s no doubt on our part that farmers are willing and ready to do the work that needs to be done.”
Chris Leyen, policy director for the League of Conservation Voters, also voiced opposition to the counting of pollution reductions linked to wastewater and stormwater management toward reductions by the agricultural sector, which Webert’s bill would allow.
“When they make progress and we make progress, don’t we all net-benefit from that?” asked Webert.
Plum, who was chairman of the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee when the 2020 negotiations occurred, said he understands the desire to revise the schedule but argued issues need to be dealt with on an ongoing basis.
That doesn’t mean “backing out what we agreed to,” Plum said. “We’re behind on the Chesapeake Bay goals anyway.”
Webert’s bill passed the Republican-controlled House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee last week.
Hanger’s bill hasn’t yet been taken up in the Senate. While it is similar to Webert’s and would also move back the deadline date, the senator told the Mercury he’s more focused on getting an accounting of what has been done so far, setting up a timetable to accomplish goals and ensuring adequate funding is in place.
“If we just were to extend the deadline and do nothing else, then a couple years from now we’d be having to extend it again,” Hanger said.
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