If you were farming out West, water rights, water use and water quality would determine the viability and success of your farm. But, farming in the East has been much less subject to water limitations than our Western counterparts. I suggest to you that this is changing and the changes are important for you to consider today for the successful future of your farms.
Water rights and water supply for farms located in Pennsylvania’s oil and gas regions will be challenged to ensure their supplies of water remain intact and sufficient in quantity and quality. The effects of current development activity are frankly not yet fully known and it may require a shift in how Eastern states address water rights where demand may outstrip useable supply. Further, agricultural businesses may expect to spend more money on securing and defending water supplies in the future. Shifting weather patterns across the region and weather extremes may further exacerbate these issues and speed up changes.
Water Quality is directly affected by agricultural activities and this is a high priority issue within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The runoff of nutrients into surface waters has resulted in a large percentage of surface waters that fail to meet minimum water quality standards required under federal law. To date, many states in our region have somewhat half-heartedly required farms to construct and implement water quality improvements unless an operation is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), requiring a federal water discharge permit. However, you should expect this to change as the federal government and environmental groups are more dedicated to ensuring existing law is enforced and nutrient discharges from agricultural operations are reduced. Prior to now, most states have focused on point sources – (CAFOs, STPs, industrial facilities) with some incidental reductions of nutrient discharges from the agricultural sector.
Expect increased inspections, increased enforcement of existing laws and regulations, and perhaps some increased enforcement efforts in many states. Farms will be forced to evaluate operations, practices and infrastructure.
What may result from these changes? I do not have a crystal ball, however, we can look at other similar shifts in regulatory and enforcement policy to indicate possibilities. Here are some general concepts to consider:
- Keep Clean Water Clean and Dirty Water Separate. Look at your operations and focus on where stormwater, rain, and snow run across areas where nutrients are concentrated. Stormwater across exercise areas, farm fields adjacent to surface waters, unlimited animal access to surface waters are some examples where clean water gets “dirty” and often laden with nutrients that easily get into surface waters in high concentrations. Improvements like stormwater controls, lined manure storages, winter storage capacity, stream fencing, buffer areas, and controlled stream crossings are likely to become more common on all types of operations.
- Conservation Planning. Although laws already encourage and/or require conversation plans in order to gain expected pollution reductions, these plans may be evaluated, enhanced and require actual confirmation of implementation.
- BMPs for Stormwater Compliance. Population centers are required to reduce pollution from stormwater discharges in their stormwater permits in all states. It is possible and likely that population centers will seek to work with agricultural facilities to fund and build stream improvements through other operational improvements to reduce pollution from stormwater in a county, local jurisdiction in order to comply with stormwater permits. Although not in place yet, we are discussing how this can be done in Pennsylvania with the federal USEPA. This is one way to assist farms to fund water quality improvements by using public/local monies to achieve water quality improvement on an area – rather than looking at pollution on a property by property basis.
Controlling water on your farm helps to address both issues of water quantity and water quality as it recharges the local water supplies and reduces nutrient and sediment runoff. Further, you will better retain good soils on your land, water beneath your land, and ultimately, money in your pocket. Proactive farmers will begin to seriously consider evaluating their operations today to create an improvement schedule in order to stay ahead of agency activity rather than be dragged along through costly enforcement action.