Pennsylvania calls on conservation districts to help with inspections

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Chesapeake Bay
(Farm and Dairy file image)

SALEM, Ohio — As Pennsylvania continues its push to reduce the loading of farm nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay, the state is now calling on the 41 county conservation districts in the bay watershed to conduct on-farm inspections.

It’s a decision that was announced in May, as part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Bay Reboot” strategy, that would shift conservation district staff from conducting 100 educational farm visits, to conducting 50 farm inspections a year.

The goal is to inspect 10 percent of the state’s farms each year — eventually inspecting all the farms in the watershed.

At first, the inspections will be limited to ensuring that farmers have completed nutrient/manure management plans, and agricultural erosion and sediment control plans.

Both documents have been required by law since at least 1985, and are being reinforced now that the U.S. EPA has called on the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to reduce runoff into the bay.

On Aug. 5, the DEP issued a reminder that it is still seeking a final decision from the counties. A spokesperson for the DEP said only two or three have agreed to participate so far, with a deadline the end of August.

The move would shift some district conservation staff, who work as bay technicians, from educational efforts and pushing for voluntary compliance, to conducting inspections.

Different perspectives

The Bradford County Conservation District, in the northeastern part of the state, has decided not to participate for fear of violating farmers’ trust — and the district’s long-standing relationship as educators, versus regulators.

“Long-standing relationships with farmers, built on 60 years would be jeopardized,” according to a statement from Bradford County Conservation District.

The district believes it could lose as much as $113,000 in funding by refusing to do the inspections.

“Loss of this funding will hinder our ability to help our farmers, but not as much as would losing their trust,” the statement reads.

According to an Aug. 7 article by the Bay Journal, York County, which also declined participation, will lose about $141,000 in funding.

Doing the inspections

But some counties have elected to participate. Chris Thompson, conservation district manager for Lancaster County, said the inspections are a way of making sure the plans are in place and being followed, and giving credit to farmers already doing the right thing.

He said farm operators who are already active cooperators with the conservation district won’t be subject to an initial inspection. The goal, he said, is to “verify who does and doesn’t” have a plan, and whether those plans are being followed.

Although conservation districts technically don’t have to conduct the inspections, Thompson said the inspections will take place regardless. He said farmers would probably prefer to be inspected by a local conservation technician, rather than someone from the EPA.

“We’re neighbors,” he said. “We’ll go about it much gentler than the EPA would.”

Thompson said the goal is for each technician in a county to inspect 50 farms a year. Lancaster County has six technicians — more than most — so they would inspect 300 farms annually.

Patrick McDonnell, acting DEP secretary, said in a statement that for bay improvements to succeed, regulators have to focus on local water quality.

“Our goal is that partnerships at the local and state level will directly translate into improving water quality at home, and in the bay, while meeting the federal Total Daily Load requirements,” he said in a statement. “The information we collect will help direct where resources are needed most to achieve our goals.”

Brenda Shambaugh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, said the association has not taken a position on the request from DEP. She said “it’s up to each individual district” to make its own decision about participation.

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