Raise your voice: Support the Chesapeake Bay’s diet

Posted by: on Nov 15, 2012 | No Comments

Yesterday, I completed an 8-week course run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called VoiCeS. VoiCeS is a program aimed at educating participants on all things Bay as well as guiding them and empowering them in citizen activism to save the Bay. Our course covered the history of the Bay in relation to the Eastern Shore of VA (ESVA or the Shore), including lectures on boating on the Shore, Native American Shore history, aquaculture, and agriculture. We heard from local professionals as well as those from across the Bay. We even had a fascinating presentation on sea level rise and the future of the Shore (we are awfully low lying). In addition to the 8 lectures, the program includes a field trip (paddling on Onancock Creek, which we will do in the Spring due to weather) and 40 hours of volunteer work (anything from designing and installing a living shoreline to collecting or organizing a trash pick up).

Fun fact: The Chesapeake Bay is an average of only 20 feet deep.

Why should all of us that live in the Bay watershed even care how clean the water is?

The Chesapeake Bay is severely impaired. A 64,000 square mile watershed, it stretches from Virginia to D.C., Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and into New York. In addition, the watershed is home to 17 million people. That’s a massive population all feeding pollution into a single water body. Pollution in the bay comes from agricultural runoff, sewage treatment plants and facilities, urban and suburban stormwater runoff (think of all the major metro areas included in the bay watershed), air pollution, and much more.

The Bay isn’t just a beautiful body of water, it’s a way of life and it’s health not only affects the health of the people dependent upon it but it affects the health of our economy. The Chesapeake Bay supports aquaculture and eco-tourism. In 2004 in Virginia alone, commercial and recreational fishing brought in $736 million dollars in income. The Bay is an important source of jobs, livelihood, and recreation. It is also an important ecological resource. A healthy Bay supports healthy shorelines, which protect us landlubbers during storms and other natural phenomena. Anyway, it’s IMPORTANT.

In order to clean up the Bay, comply with the Clean Water Act (CWA), and other legal actions, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed total maximum daily loads (TMDL). TMDL is a model that calculates “the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still safely meet water quality standards” (EPA). Although these are called “daily” loads, they are actually annual loads (go figure). Each segment (agriculture, sewage treatment, urban and suburban stormwater, air pollution) contributing to pollution in the Bay, must reduce the number of pollutants they are discharging and comply with the TMDLs. Under the TMDLs, the Bay is getting healthier. However, not everyone agrees with the TMDL model.

What does all this have to do with my endless rant on food?

Agriculture is one of the major sources of pollutants to the Bay watershed. Nitrogen and phosphorus wreck havoc in large quantities, causing algal blooms, fish kills, and an overall imbalance in the water. We are by simple production of our nourishment, destroying our fresh water (the Bay tributaries) that we need so desperately to live and produce more food as well as our aquatic food sources.

Unfortunately, agriculture is getting a lot of the flack and therefore the responsibility of cleaning up its act. The agricultural clean up is much less expensive than say re-doing all the antiquated stormwater systems in metropolitan areas. Therefore, the focus has been heavily on agriculture. This makes farmers feel vilified. Additionally, farmers who are already implementing best management practices (BMP), or practices designed to reduce pollution (like keeping cattle out of streams with fencing), feel underappreciated and as if their efforts are going unnoticed. (We should support and appreciate our farmers for the service they are providing the rest of us.) Many farmers do not like the TMDLs and feel the model is flawed. Let’s be honest, it’s a model… aren’t they ALL flawed a little. But it’s the best we’ve got and the law requires it. And the model only improves with more data collection. Farmers can submit their voluntary BMPs, which would only better the model.

Taking action

Anyway, a couple weeks ago the regional planning district commission (PDC), which covers the two counties here on the Shore (Accomack and Northampton), released it’s draft Comprehensive Economic Development (CED) plan. A plan it is required to publish every year. They also announced an open house to take comments on the draft plan. The open house was held on a Wednesday and they considered comments and made changes that following Friday. Among other things, the draft plan tore TMDLs in relation to agriculture apart. The language used was biased and negative and definitely informed from only one side of the argument.

In a roaring show of citizen activism, many of the VoiCeS participants attended the open house or emailed comments in regarding the TMDLs and agriculture on the Shore. And it made a difference. The comments changed minds and how the PDC is addressing TMDLs within the CED. In fact, a farmer and a decision maker on the CED plan was key in responding positively to the citizen comments and requesting more information on TMDLs. He and others were also adamant that the negative language be re-written.

Your voice matters and you CAN make a difference. No matter how little you think your voice may be in this vast country, if you are passionate and informed, you can have a positive impact. So, go ahead get out there and get involved.

For more information on TMDLs and the Chesapeake Bay, check out the Bay Blueprint.

P.S. In addition to changes on the TMDL language, I went to the open house and provided comments on other areas of the CED plan. For an agricultural region with massive potential for a small-scale, sustainable food system, the CED plan did not highlight food and agriculture (or aquaculture for that matter) as the economic resource it can be. So, I came up with a list of suggestions to include within the plan. With a little help from my friends, two of my suggestions will be included in the final CED plan. The plan will support agri-tourism within our region and the development of a Food Policy Council.

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