The Potomac Highlands Watershed School 

Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum

Moderator Comments

 Moderator (Neil Gillies, Cacapon Institute)

I have enjoyed reading your initial POVs.  Not surprisingly, some were more on point than others, and quite a few POVs confused providing general information with staking out a defensible position for their group.  I’m not surprised by that.  As students, few of you have had to argue or debate a position with facts rather than just repeat information you have read elsewhere.  The purpose of your POV is to lay groundwork that supports the importance and needs of your stakeholder group so you can argue more persuasively when you fight out a consensus position with the other stakeholders. 

The strongest moments came in POVs that reflected personal experience.  Not surprisingly, the greatest passion tended to come from students who farm:

  • “Our farm doesn’t want to have to put out a whole lot of money into buying a fence to stop contamination of the water. If America still wants to have meat to eat then they are going to have to help pay for the equipment that we need.”
  • “The government should help farmers in financing the reconstruction projects in maintain streams and the water qualities.”
  • “We feed the American population. We the people of the agriculture community will lose a great deal of money therefore driving the prices of the produce sky high.”
  • “Farmers get blamed for most pollution. If we didn’t fertilize our fields, no one in the world would have the food or clothing they like or need.”
  • “In my point of view it is not the farmer’s faults that the bay is polluted today because we are and have been trying to keep pollutions out of the waters for many years now. We have been working with our county extension agents, and the governments to find out what the right chemicals to use on the fields are and what we can’t use because it might be a pollutant and don’t want blamed for it in the long run.  I have heard that we are not the problem in the polluting of the bay because we are far enough away that by the time the water reaches the bay it is already naturally filtered by the rocks in the riverbeds.”

There is no question that farmers have and will continue to bear the brunt of non point source cleanup efforts, particularly in rural areas, for a very simple reason – they are the dominant human land use in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Land use analyses indicate that the vast majority of the non-forested land in the Potomac Highlands region is agricultural and water quality analyses consistently report the water quality impacts of agricultural use.  The small, but growing, human population is clustered in both small towns and distributed across the landscape at low density.  Because of the agricultural dominance of the human landscape, agriculture plays an important role in determining the quality of water related to human activities in the region.  However, multiple sources contribute to any stream's water quality.  In small streams, even small sources, such as individual straight pipes from streamside homes, can have outsized impacts on local nutrient and bacteria concentrations.  But small sources have only a small impact on the Bay.

Farmers are working hard to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture.  Eighty-five percent of poultry growers in the five county area of the Potomac Valley Conservation District are currently participating in government programs that support improved nutrient and animal waste management on farms.  These programs were developed in response to specific concerns that tripled production in the region’s poultry industry in the late 1990s might impact water quality.  Particular concerns related to increased use of poultry litter (a mixture of poultry manure and bedding materials) as fertilizer.  So, at the time that the amount of manure was increasing, programs were instituted to improve management of that important agricultural resource.

Please re-read the bulleted quotes above.  Really read them.  Emotionally loaded phrases like “not the farmer’s faults”, “farmers get blamed”, “we feed the American population”, “we are and have been trying to keep pollution out of the waters” are coming from your peers, your friends, your neighbors.  This is a real thing that is affecting real people. 

Almost alone among the stakeholder groups, farmers are really giving something significant up to help find a solution.  Homeowners might use less fertilizer to make their grass ever so green, or give up a bit of lawn for a riverside buffer.  It will help solve the problem, but it doesn’t really cost them anything –well maybe a bit of pride.  They don’t make their living off that bit of land.  Municipalities and other point sources will have to improve wastewater treatment (I know this Forum isn’t about point sources but several of you brought it up) but those costs will be spread across society. 

But a farmer giving up some productive land in our narrow headwater valleys is a cost he probably will not be able to pass along.  Given that many farmers are barely squeaking by, additional costs are a big, big deal.  You might re-read native guide Matt Monroe’s essay to understand the farm perspective from someone working on Bay issues.  Do you feel that having farming in our region is important.  Most environmentalists do, that’s why the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (native guide #5) is working so hard with agricultural interests to find fair solutions.

Most of the other stakeholder groups are mostly being harmed by the problem.  And for most of you, the issues may seem remote.  One exception was this fisherman:

·        “Each year, for as long as I can remember, I have been fishing these local streams and rivers and had great luck, though, during the last few years, I have noticed a few changes w/ the river’s rocks. Being that I am an overboard trout fisherman, I have chest waders for fishing the far out and “hard to fish” fishing holes. These waders have caused me to notice the slick, slimy material that seems to grow on the rocks, and of course, in the water. Also, I have noticed over amounts of algae building up along the shores and in calm water. I believe that something should be done.”

Participants in Cacapon Institute’s 2006 Stream Scholars Summer Camp experienced the problem as well:

·        Many Stream Scholars had participated the previous two years, and they were shocked to see that our little study stream at the headwaters of the North River, vibrantly healthy two years ago, was in trouble.  Over the past several years, the spaces between the gravel and cobble on the stream bottom that used to provide habitat had become filled with sand and silt.  There was simply no room for many of the organisms that used to live there.  In 2004, every set of the kick net produced hundreds of aquatic insects of many different kinds.  In 2006, it took four “sets” to collect 91 organisms, and the diversity was way down.  Seeing the problem led to a discussion of solutions, like the many Best Management Practices (BMPs) you have been discussing in the SCE Forum.  They recognized that the difficulty wasn’t knowing how to address the problem (whether caused by forestry, development or agriculture).  The difficulty was in developing a community consensus that the problem exists and needs to be addressed, that we all contribute to the problem, and then finding a way to implement the solutions.

The problem does exist, and it hurts all of us.  Your job in consensus building is to propose solutions that get the job done, share the burden equitably across society, and protect your neighbors from harm.  

You need to argue with facts.  One “farmer” argued above that “I have heard that we are not the problem in the polluting of the bay because we are far enough away that by the time the water reaches the bay it is already naturally filtered by the rocks in the riverbeds.”  There is an element of truth to that, specifically as it relates to nitrogen.   There are in-stream processes that actually remove some of the nitrogen in the stream by converting it to elemental gaseous nitrogen, by far the most effectively at low flows.   But major loads are delivered during high flows, and there are no meaningful in-stream processes that pull phosphorus or sediment out of the system.  It may take them many years to get to the Bay, but get to the Bay they will.

Remember the most important lesson from Stream Cleaner – it takes a suite of BMPs to effectively control non point source pollution, not one single magic bullet.  You should have also learned from Stream Cleaner that land with row crops is particularly important in delivering nutrients.  This picture shows a piece of crop land that also delivers a lot of sediment from a failing bank.  What suite of BMPs would be most effective in fixing the problems you see in this picture?