Agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay is a Success: Not a Goal Post

In the 1980s, I spent most of my time as a young Marine stationed in Maryland. Whenever I was afforded leave, crabbing and fishing in the Chesapeake Bay was a top priority. Sharing stories, buying oysters for $10 a bushel and attempting to catch a quick bite to eat was quintessential relaxation. Even the famous rock fish was coming back strong, despite there being no restrictions on eating anything from the waters. As much as I enjoyed the bay, according to locals, fishing was not always possible as over-harvest, poor sewage systems and agriculture runoff had a negative impact on the region for decades. It wasn’t until the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act was there any effort by industry and organizations to protect the watershed. Fast forward fifty years later, I would find myself leading an organization deeply involved in meeting the goals, set forth by the federal government, for the continued restoration and improvement of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.   

In June, the WVDA had the honor to host the annual meeting of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture (SASDA). We chose Canaan Valley primarily to showcase the success West Virginia has had in making agriculture, energy and conservation work together. We even took agriculture leaders and attendees trout fishing on a stream removed from the 303d list for impaired streams. The fishing expedition and the meeting showed the effort our State and partners have made towards meeting the 2025 Restoration Goals for the Chesapeake Bay Program. These efforts have been a tremendous part of returning the natural beauty and tourism to the region. Despite our determination to achieve the original goals, we are now learning the Chesapeake Bay Commission wants to change the model and raise the bar, again.  

Under proposed changes, there will be less effort for actual monitoring and use of water quality data to pinpoint remaining sources of bay pollution. Not only does this continue to put an unfair burden and discount the efforts agriculture has made, but it’s just bad science. Therefore, immediately following the SASDA conference, I hosted a meeting with the Chesapeake Bay states and their secretaries or commissioners. We were joined by the Virginia Commissioner and Delaware Secretary of Agriculture, as well as staff from Pennsylvania and Maryland. After discussing the methodology and proposed changes, we all agreed the current model works because it is data driven. Where changes need to be made is be addressing the other industries that are not pulling their weight to ensure they step up conservation practices. West Virginia farmers and communities have already kept their promises of implementing and maintaining these practices.  

If we don’t hold every industrial sector accountable and, as a result, expect producers to make up the difference, we risk alienating all our farmers who have acted as good stewards of the land. In West Virginia, we have built a partnership around voluntary practices and cost-share programs to meet the goals of the Chesapeake Bay restoration. Raising the bar again signals to these producers that their effort was all for not and is a slap in the face to our farmers. By changing the model, we risk eroding any good will we have created with our producers and risk future conservation efforts. That is why we should focus on imploring others across the watershed to step up and implement conservation.  

I know firsthand about implementing conservation practices and have seen their benefits to agriculture and the environment. I don’t know a single agriculture leader that doesn’t care about the environment and clean water as they are all essential to the success of the American farmer. But if we keep changing the rules, we are doomed to fail. The agriculture commissioners, secretaries and directors will be meeting soon to address our concerns as one voice. We will be working with our state and federal partners to combat this misguided plan and federal overreach. Our fear is, if the federal government is left unchecked, it could impact other watersheds throughout the country. We have sounded the alarm. We hope you share our concerns.  

Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture