DEP Documents Farmers’ Efforts in 2021-22 to Improve Water Quality in Chesapeake Bay Watershed

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced 2021-22 agricultural compliance data in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Visits to 2,670 farms documented superefficient nutrient use on 108,000 acres and 1,524 new structural best management practices (BMPs) to improve the health of streams and rivers in Pennsylvania’s largest watershed.

“Pennsylvanians’ actions on the ground continue to demonstrate our strong commitment to improving the health of the watershed,” said DEP Acting Secretary Ramez Ziadeh. “The data show that many farms have conservation plans and are putting in place best management practices to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution here in Pennsylvania and on down to the bay.”

“Pennsylvania farmers are managing their farms in ways that protect and improve our soil and water resources,” said Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding. “These numbers make it clear that the investments we are making in conservation on our farms is paying off for all of us – our farms are feeding our future.”

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked that DEP expand its agricultural compliance program to inspect 10% of the farmland in Pennsylvania’s share of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed each year. The goal is to ensure that farms that are required to have a completed manure management plan, nutrient management plan, or agricultural erosion and sediment control plan have their plan and are implementing the BMPs specified in it.

Many agricultural BMPs help reduce nutrient (excess nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment pollution in streams and rivers. Examples include: applying fertilizer efficiently, practicing no-till farming, having cover crops over the winter, planting trees on streambanks, installing fencing to keep livestock out of water, protecting animal heavy use areas, having a proper manure storage, and using prescribed grazing to improve both water quality and soil health.

County conservation district and DEP regional office staff inspected 2,670 farms in 2021-22, covering 322,750 acres, or 10.5% of farmland in the watershed.

Fully 685 out of 822 farms visited for a required nutrient management plan had their completed plan and were carrying out their BMPs.

Thanks to a new tool developed by the State Conservation Commission, the 2021-22 data also documents farmers’ supplemental nutrient management practices for the first time.

Over 108,000 of the inspected agricultural acres are under “4R” nutrient management, meaning the right fertilizer source is being applied to the crop at the right rate at the right time, and in the right place. Superefficient nutrient application is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce excess nutrient runoff and lowers the amount of money farmers need to spend on fertilizer.

Out of 1,186 farms initially visited for a required erosion and sediment control plan, 792 had their plan. Notably, 526 farms volunteered to demonstrate their BMP implementation at the same time and were found to be successful. Another 81 farms demonstrated BMP implementation in accordance with their plan at a second visit.

On first visits for manure management plans, 858 out of 1,250 farms had their completed plan. Again, 527 farms volunteered to demonstrate BMP implementation at the same time and were found to be successfully achieving manure management. A further 96 farms demonstrated BMP implementation in accordance with their plan at a second visit.

Overall, the data show that farmers installed 1,524 new structural BMPs for manure management or erosion and sediment control in 2021-22.

The expanded agricultural compliance program reviews larger scale livestock or poultry operations, such as federally permitted Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and concentrated animal operations, for nutrient management and erosion and sediment control plans. It reviews smaller operations for manure management and erosion and sediment control plans.

One of a complement of programs that provide farmers technical assistance on water quality improvement, the compliance program enables county conservation districts to individualize education and collaboration to help a farm meet its legal requirements for conservation planning and implementation. It also ensures that farmers’ conservation practices are counted toward Pennsylvania’s nutrient and sediment reduction goals in the watershed.