(Kenny Fletcher / Chesapeake Bay Foundation)
Environmental and agricultural groups reached a compromise over legislation seeking to push back the deadline for farmers to voluntarily implement practices that aim to reduce the amount of polluted runoff entering Chesapeake Bay waters.
Bills from Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, and Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, initially sought to extend the current 2026 deadline to 2030 because of delays related to COVID-19 and supply-chain disruptions, as well as inadequate funding for state farmer assistance programs in prior years.
But following negotiations, Hanger and Webert agreed to an intermediate deadline of 2028 and the addition of specific reporting requirements to track farmers’ progress in implementing the practices.
Both Hanger and Webert’s bills have garnered bipartisan support as they move out of committee.
“We can do what we’re supposed to do, and the important part is, we’ll know where success is, because we’re going to measure it in an appropriate way,” Hanger said on Jan. 31.
The original 2026 deadline was set following negotiations in the 2020 session that aimed to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that runs off agricultural fields into waterways as part of Virginia’s effort to achieve its 2025 Bay cleanup targets.
The 2020 law gave farmers until 2026 to voluntarily adopt practices like installing fencing along streams to prevent livestock from entering them and planting tree buffers to collect fertilizer runoff before it enters waterways. If the state hadn’t shown enough progress toward reducing agricultural pollution at that time, the legislation required the practices to then become mandatory.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged last year that the 2025 reduction goals won’t be met.
Several environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, initially opposed the idea of pushing the deadline back four years, arguing that 90% of Virginia’s remaining pollution reductions need to come from the agricultural sector. Additionally, they argued, momentum toward implementing the practices has increased after a state cost-share program received a record level of funding last year.
But the groups agreed to a 2028 deadline after the addition of metrics to track farmers’ progress toward the goals.
“It’s not just a free pass of two more years, which is kind of how I approached it at the outset,” said Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Martha Moore, vice president of government relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau, told lawmakers farmers are dependent upon state funding for implementation of practices like stream fencing, which can be expensive to adopt. The General Assembly has to continue funding the state cost-share programs “if we’re going to meet these goals,” she said.
The bill includes a provision that if the legislature doesn’t provide sufficient funding for the cost-share program, the deadline will be extended one year. An advisory group will also annually review progress on the number of practices implemented, what more needs to be done, the number of operators within each region and the consequences of funding shortfalls.
A separate provision of the bill states municipal wastewater pollution reductions cannot count toward agricultural sector reductions, a strategy allowed by the earlier versions of the legislation and opposed by environmental groups.
Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, asked Wednesday whether there was any way to extend the deadline again.
Further extensions would be based on inadequate funding or specific metrics, said Hanger, before adding, “We’re not going to do that. We need to maintain our commitment.”
Both the House and Senate budget proposals allocate $137.1 million to the cost-share program, $12.9 million for additional incentives for farmers to install conservation practices and $1 million for soil and water conservation districts to help farmers adopt the practices. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin requested an extra $50 million be added to the state’s agricultural best management practice funds.
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