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Release No. 0128.11
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USDA Releases Study Showing Conservation Practices Protect Water Resources in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

March 16, 2011

MODERATOR: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for today's media briefing. Here in the studio, we've got Natural Resources and Conservation Service Chief, Dave White, and he's joined by Deputy Chief for Soil Service and Resource Assessment, Doug Lawrence. Also, we have on the line Dr. Lee Norfleet who is the NRCS Environmental Modeler, and he's also available if you'd like to ask questions.

Today's topic, the release of the Final Report assessing use of conservation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. If you'd like to ask a question of any of our panelists, let us know by pressing Star/1 on your touchtone pad. Again, press Star/1 on your phone, and now I turn it over to Chief White.

CHIEF WHITE: Thank you, Susan, and greetings everyone. I appreciate the time you're taking to call in to this. First, before I just jump into a bunch of numbers, I wanted to visit with you a little bit about what the CEAP is. The acronym CEAP stands for Conservation Effect Assessment Project, and the roots of this lie back in the 2002 Farm Bill. When Congress actually gave us some instructions, they wanted to assess what was the impact of conservation on the landscape. That was the genesis of it in the '02 Farm Bill. We started the studies in '03. There's about 10 studies under way dealing with cropland. We're also doing stuff for wetlands, wild life, and grazing lands, and all of these reports, we should have them — well, the goal is to get them done by September 30, at the end of this fiscal year.

The first cropland CEAP report has already been released, and it dealt with the Upper Mississippi River Basin. It was released back in June. The Chesapeake Bay cropland assessment is the one we're talking about today.

Let me just take a second to let you know about the process we went through. When the Upper Mississippi was released, prior to its official release, it went through a vigorous peer review for us to assess the modelling that we used. We sent that to over 200 researchers and scientists, specifically including those we knew who would be critical, and as a result of that, the criticisms we got, the new data we got vastly improved this model, particularly in the areas of tile drainage impacts and also yield data.

The focus of the Chesapeake Bay CEAP report is on cropland, about the 4.3 million acres of cropland that are on the Bay, and the purpose of it was to quantify the effects that existing conservation is having on the landscape and the Bay; two, to evaluate the needs that we may have for additional conservation practices; and three, to evaluate what would happen if you put those practices on the ground. So that was really the three things: what is conservation doing for you now, what additional do you need, and what would be the effect if you got that.

The results of this CEAP report, we will use them in NRCS to inform our programs in the Chesapeake Bay to help us do a better job in achieving results that really matter for the health of the landscape, so that was the overall focus.

How we did it also merits a little bit of explanation. We simulation models in this effort, and as Susan mentioned, Dr. Lee Norfleet is calling in from Blackland, Texas, Ag Research Service Station down there. He's our top modeler.

But essentially, we used three models. The APEX model, which deals with cropland, it's got 47 years of climate data in it. It has data on plant growth, yield growth, all sorts of stuff relating to natural resources. Then we used the SWAT, S-W-A-T. It's kind of an aggregator. The APEX was highly specific on cropland because that's where most of the data we were using came from, and then it's aggregated up into the SWAT, which would use data from other sources, for other land uses, like that's where we got the data for hay and pasture, for forest, for urban. It came from other sources. And then the third one is something called HUMUS, and it's kind of your large watershed model, where it puts it all together.

These databases, these models, I should say, were developed by the Ag Research Station in Texas A&M. We believe — well, they are. They're world-class models. These are some of the best in the world.

Then for the statistical framework that we used these models, NRCS has been conducting the National Resource Inventory since 1982. We have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of data points around the country where we know highly specific information going back to 1982. We chose 700 of those points in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which would give us a statistically reliable sample at a pretty high level, at the four-digit hydrologic unit level. So the key thing about these NRI data points is now we know the soils where these things are occurring on. We know the soil chemistry. We know the permeability. We know the slope. We know a lot of the things that would happen on that soil.

So now you've got the models, you've got the statistical framework of NRI, the 700 points. The third thing is we took those 700 points, and we worked with the National Agricultural Statistic Service to do farmer surveys on those 700 points. The key thing here is, well, NASS is probably the world leader in these types of surveys, but it wasn't a survey that was just mailed out. These were visits with individuals, and the surveys were conducted by trained enumerators.

I looked at the manual for the enumerators, and it's about a half-inch thick just to train them on this, and the thing to remember about NASS enumerators, they're often, oh, retired extension agents or farmers or people in the community that are known and respected. So the enumerators sat down with the producers, and generally, this occurs in November after harvest where farmers have a bit more time, and they went over this survey. This survey is 44 pages long, and if anyone doesn't think farmers are good-hearted souls, I would invite you to look at this survey. It would be estimated about two hours to cover all the data, even with a trained person with you.

So we had the models. We had the NRI data points. We had the 700 surveys, and then we took the information from those surveys, and we double-checked it with our own field office records. So that's kind of the milieu that this occurred in, and to my knowledge, this is the first time I know of that you had natural resource information that was married up with production practices and conservation practices.

So there's really four things here that are unique that really make this special. We know the soils. We know the crops that are being grown on those soils. We know the method the farmer is using to grow that crop, the tillage, the inputs, and we know the conservation practices that are there, so this is pretty unique. This is the first time I know that we've got that level of information.

So let me go over some of the results of the farmer survey. Based upon all the things we had heard, about 46 percent of the cropland in the Chesapeake Bay has structural practices on it, and a structural practice would be like a terrace, something that's actually on the landscape.

We also learned that conservation tillage is used on 88 percent of the land, cropland in the Bay. About 48 percent of that is no till, and about 40 percent of it is some form of conservation tillage, mulch till, strip till, something like that. So about 88 percent is conservation tillage.

The thing that blew my mind was if you look at the cropland in the Bay that has either a structural practice or a conservation tillage, a management practice or some combination of both, 96 percent of the cropland in the Bay has some sort of conservation applied to it, which is absolutely astounding.

Now, there are areas that need work, particularly in the area of nitrogen management and phosphorous management. When we did the survey, we asked the producers to fill out the crops they grew in 2003 — no, it was 2004, 2005, 2006. I'm sorry. It was '03 to '06 with the cropland data, and if there was even one thing out of order, we put them into a "need treatment" category, so they could be applying nitrogen, right time, right place, right method, for two years out of the three, and if there was one out of order, we put it into a treatment need.

But essentially, 80 percent of the Bay cropland needs some form of treatment. Nineteen percent of that, we would classify as needing a high level of treatment. Sixty-one percent would be a moderate level of treatment, and then you got about, oh, 20 percent that is very low treatment needs.

Nitrogen and phosphorous management are the big ones. In my book, the biggest item we need to look at is subsurface nitrogen loss, and the reason for that is that if you look at some of the challenges faced by agriculture in the Bay area, the Bay area, it's tougher to farm in the Bay area. I told you earlier about the Upper Mississippi report. If you look at the cropland in the Bay area and look at the cropland in the Upper Mississippi, the Bay area, we get about eight inches more of rain a year. We have a higher percentage of highly erodible land, about twice on a percent basis the amount of highly erodible land. We have about five times on a percent basis the acres that have a high or moderately high leaching potential, and that's the area where I think we really need to work on.

Now the findings of the study, I'm finally getting around to that, and I apologize for this long, drawn-out explanation. First is the voluntary incentive-based approach is working. We're confident that the voluntary approach is working, but two, there are several areas where we need to improve. There's opportunities out there, particularly in the area of nutrient management, where we can improve.

We also know that targeting our resources will really improve our effectiveness. When you look at those acres with high treatment need versus a moderate treatment need, you treat one acre in the high category, it's like treating two acres in the moderate category. Sometimes it's like treating 20 acres in the low category. So, if you can focus on the areas where we know need high treatment, then you multiply your impact on effectiveness.

And the fourth thing is that comprehensive conservation planning and implementation is absolutely essential. We cannot view conservation practices, any single practice as a panacea, because these things work in tandem.

Let me give you an example. Take a soil. Oh, gosh, if you look at the Coastal Plains like in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, there's thousands of different soil types, but if you look at a soil like Rumford or Evesboro, these are sandy soils. They're not only important to commodity crops, but if you look at Delmarva, they're also used for fruit and vegetable production. You look at some of the Pennsylvania soils or New York, West Virginia, that have high leaching potential, you could put a terrace on one of these fields, and the terrace will slow your sediment loss. You're going to control your sediment loss, but the terrace will back up the water, allow more water to infiltrate, so you could be exacerbating your subsurface nitrogen loss. So, in cases like that, you need a terrace plus really good nutrient management, and when you look at nutrient management, you're looking at the right time, the right place, and the right method every single year, so that's what I meant by working in tandem with these things.

I want to talk about one other thing here, and I don't mean to make anyone uncomfortable about this, but this is the final release of our report. We're very confident in the science here. We released a draft report last October on the CEAP, and we did so with the sincere desire to seek meaningful input. We weren't trying for some temporary advantage in the messaging wars or attempting to influence people one way or the other. I know in this town, that may be hard to believe, but we were simply and honestly seeking scientific input, and we got it.

The biggest change, if you look at the Draft Report last October to the Final Report today, is the percent of acres that move from the high critical treatment category to the moderate treatment category. One of the things we learned in the draft review process, we got better information on the plant uptake of nutrients in the winter, and the model, the APEX model, it resulted in estimates of erosion and sediment loss that were just too high, and using the old information, it inflated the estimates of these critical undertreated acres.

So, when the new science was added and the model routine was run which incorporated the new information, we have done a much better job of accounting for plant growth and the related nitrogen and phosphorous, particularly in the winter months. This reduced the number of acres in the high critical treatment area from 47 percent down to 19 percent. The overall numbers of acres really didn't change. Draft Report had 81 percent; Final report has 80 percent. The big shift was within the treatment category where a lot of the acres were kind of on the cusp, and they were listed as high, and with the new data, they fell to moderate.

And I should note to you that this was not just done for the CEAP when the new information came out. We re-ran it for the Upper Mississippi, and it will be incorporated in all the new studies as well. In the Upper Mississippi, it really didn't change much, the data, and maybe Dr. Norfleet could correct me, but my guess is it's a lot colder in the Upper Mississippi, and you have much less plant growth during the winter.

So one of the things I have heard now is that I've heard rumors that some entities are saying that we fixed the model to reduce these high-treatment or critically under-treatment acres. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just want to make the offer right now. We believe our science is impeccable, and if any credible source has concerns about this, we're more than happy to sit down with them, throw the doors open, go over with them, and show them everything we have.

I guess I'll close for now with a basis of this. The voluntary approach is working. There's still a lot we can do, but a lot of what we can do is going to be relatively tweaks in the nutrient management aspect. I am much more bullish on the Bay today than I was in the past. Congress gave us some incredible resources in the '08 Farm Bill. We have tremendous partners in the States. We are working closely with the State agencies and local conservation districts, farm groups, conservation groups. Our farmers are more than willing to do their part, and I am confident that from the perspective of agriculture, we can fix our issues, and we can do it in a fairly short amount of time.

And, Susan, with that, I would open it up for questions.

MODERATOR: All righty. Again, Reporters, just to remind you, if you'd like to ask a question of our panel, that's NRCS Chief Dave White as well as Deputy Chief (Soil Survey and Resource Assessment) Doug Lawrence, and also on the phone line, we have Dr. Lee Norfleet with the NRCS. He is an environmental modeler. We do have a question coming from Chris Clayton from DTN. Chris?

QUESTIONER (DTN): Thank you for taking questions today. A couple of things. First, how does this create or work with the Chesapeake Bay model that the EPA has? And you had indicated at the NCBA meeting that there were differences there. How does this factor in there? And how do you then — I mean, this really only addresses cropland, so how do you look and factor in the livestock impacts into actual overall practices and conservation practices through all of agriculture?

CHIEF WHITE: Okay, Chris. Thanks. First, let me deal with the remarks I made at the meeting out there with the cattlemen. I had said at that point that — you mentioned the conservation. I specifically said the conservation tillage used in the model was — I think I actually said it was inaccurate because we were showing 88 percent and they were showing 50 percent. I didn't say the model was flawed. I just said some of the data going into it.

I have since met with EPA, Chris, and they have agreed to use the conservation tillage data from the CEAP report. In fact, we've agreed to sit down and within 30 days come up with a list of items that can be readily used by them in the Bay model, and they've opened their doors to train me on how their stuff works.

As far as the comparison, I don't feel comfortable making a comparison between the CEAP report and the Bay model. It's two models for two different purposes. Ours had the genesis in the '02 Farm Bill where Congress wanted to find more information on how conservation practices work. Ours is only statistically reliable at that 40,000-foot level, at the 4-digit HUC level. The Bay model was developed like over 25 years, so there's all sorts of stuff in there I don't know about and don't understand, and I would defer to EPA on that.

But really for the purposes, it's apples and oranges. We're going to use ours, Chris, to inform our programs, to do a better job with EQIP and the WIP and the various Farm Bill programs, and I should also say we're also going to update our survey again, Chris, this fall. We realize our data, it's just that snapshot in time. It's '03 to '06. A lot of things have changed since '06, particularly since the '08 Farm Bill, and we've had the large increases in funding, but we're going to, this fall, go back to those 700 sites, go back to those same farmers — hopefully, they'll still talk to us — and update that survey information. Plus, we're going to add another 700 sites, Chris, so this time next year, we're going to have a more robust, more up-to-date CEAP report on what the Bay is actually accomplishing.

Fair enough, or is that good enough, or did I miss the boat?

QUESTIONER (DTN): No. Thank you.

CHIEF WHITE: Okay, Chris.

MODERATOR: We continue on the line. We have Jeff Day with BNA News, and that's followed by Tim Wheeler with the Baltimore Sun. Jeff?

QUESTIONER (BNA): Hello. Thanks for this report, and actually, you partly addressed this. When you talk about the 700 farmers who were surveyed, can you give me a sense of how much of all the cropland farmers in the watershed that is, either in sort of the amount of land or just numerically? And do you have confidence that if the surveyor had sort of walked over the farm, that he would have seen the same things the farmer was telling him?

CHIEF WHITE: Okay. First, I believe there are about 84,000 farms in the Bay, so this 700 points is a statistically reliable sample, and I think it's reliable at the 95-percent confidence level, somewhere in there, that this information is accurate or statistically reliable.

And, Tim, you know, every four years, we will see surveys that talk to a thousand people, and they tell us who's going to win the Presidential election. So, from a statistical reliability standpoint, we're very confident that these 700 give us a good representation.

Now, the survey itself is 44 pages, and to tell you the truth, can we put a PDF of this up on our Home Page on the Web, Doug, so, if Tim or Chris or anyone else wanted to look at it, you could see what kind of data we're collecting? It would be a blank one. All the NASS data that a farmer gives is completely protected by privacy. In fact, we even have to store the samples in a locked room. They don't even let the cleaning crew in there. But it's 44 pages. It's highly specific.

Let me give you an example. There's checks and double checks built into this, Tim, that may answer your reliability question. Like on page 7, we ask producers, one of the questions was what type of tillage do you use, and they could pick no tills, drip till, mulch till, or conventional till, and what we found was on the double check was a lot of producers would actually — they're doing conservation tillage, but they would call it "conventional tillage" because everybody in their neighborhood and their community is doing that. We've seen a sea-change in tillage. So what the farmer thought was conventional tillage, we would actually consider conservation tillage.

But then later on in the survey on page 35, we start a process where the farmer — there's three pages where we actually asked them to go, what implement they used, what crop they planted, when they did it, when they harvested it. So say you're growing corn and you put a disk down, was your first tillage operation, we would assign a disturbance factor to that disk operation, and then you tally all these things up. And if you had more than a hundred points, you were conventional. If you had 30 to a hundred points, you were some form of conservation tillage, and if you were less than 30 disturbance points, you were no till. That's where we got the 88 percent information. So a farmer may think he's doing conventional till, but his records should also say that it's mulch till or strip tillage, so we had double checks like that built in.

Then we also had access to the conservation plans in the field offices. One of the things we found was like there's a lot of rented ground there, and say, Tim, you were renting the land and Chris was the previous renter, you may not know some of the conservation practices, how they got there, but our field office may know, well, Chris, the previous renter put that buffer strip in, so there are all kinds of checks and double checks to assure the integrity of the information, Tim.

MODERATOR: All righty. Next on the line is Tim Wheeler from the Baltimore Sun. That's going to be our last call. Actually, that was Jeff that you were —

CHIEF WHITE: Oh, Jeff?

MODERATOR: That was Jeff.

CHIEF WHITE: Oh, gosh. Sorry, Tim, and sorry, Jeff.

MODERATOR: But you got Chris right.

CHIEF WHITE: Can we go longer than 30 minutes?

QUESTIONER (Baltimore Sun): You can call me "Jeff" if you want. I've been called different things, too.

[Laughter.]

CHIEF WHITE: I bet you have.

QUESTIONER (Baltimore Sun): So I guess one of the questions that I have here, as you sort of already alluded to this is, you know, the rumor has been out that this report, the Final Report, is going to find a lesser issue around what farmers are doing, and, you know, it's landing in sort of a political climate here where farmers have been basically pushing back hard against the EPA's TMDL and against essentially being asked to do anything by government or told, anyway. Let's put it that way. And, you know, I can well imagine how this is going to be viewed. You know, you mentioned how some of the environmental community might be viewing this as a whitewash. I can well imagine how the farm groups are going to say, "See? We told you we're already doing plenty. We don't really need to do very much more." What do you mean exactly by moderate treatment by tweaks here? What is it the farmers are not doing that they need to do, and why? Is it a function of economics, poor advice, vagaries of weather? What are you talking about here?

CHIEF WHITE: First, Tim, let me go back to the integrity of the model. If any group approaches you — in fact, we will sit down with you. If you want to go pore through this stuff, just come over here. We'll get Dr. Norfleet on the video teleconference, and we will spend as much or as little time as you want on this issue. I cannot control or help how people are going to spin this or use this. This is a scientific document. We have used the best science we could possibly do, and we're trying to use it to do a better job of implementing these voluntary conservation plans. So, if someone really casts aspersions on it, we're more than happy to sit down with them.

Now, related to what may be a moderate need is let's look at nitrogen. There's really three critical things, the timing, how you apply it, the rate, and the method — the timing, the rate, and the method. If you look at nitrogen, we're finding that 43 percent of the nitrogen is being applied too soon, before the crop needs it, so that's a tweak that doesn't seem that difficult to me that you adjust when you apply your nitrogen. The rate, we're putting too much nitrogen on. It looks like about 1.4 times the removal rates, and I think we could reduce the rates on certain areas. The method, Tim, on how you apply it, if you can get it soil incorporated or banded or spot treated, only 35 percent is using those methods. That's the best, we think is the best method. So changing your method would really help. The rate, the timing, those are the kinds of what I think are tweaks, if you will, that are fairly easy to do and would have a big impact.

There's another thing. This model only gives us the general indication. You could be on a high potential soil, but we're not going to know what your treatment needs, if any, until we actually go out there. You could have the highest potential leaching soil in the universe, and the farmer could just have chock-full of conservation practices and not have to do anything. It's going to take a site-specific, technology-based approach to grind this out. You could have a high potential soil that really needs everything, but until you make the site-specific aspect of this, we really don't know.

And I guess I'll just say please note that the undertreated acres didn't really change either, and the total treated acres didn't change.

Tim, is that okay?

QUESTIONER (Baltimore Sun): Well, if I could ask one sort of follow-up question. When you say the voluntary incentive approach is working, does that mean you don't think that there could be or should be any tweaks to that where, for instance, if you get subsidies from the government that the government has no right to put any conditions on how you should treat your croplands?

CHIEF WHITE: Well, the government has put conditions on in the past. In 1985, we saw the advent of conservation compliance; whereas, as a condition, you get commodity payments, you had to develop a conservation plan on highly erodible land. So what you're talking about there is a policy call that Congress may have to deal with in the 2012 Farm Bill.

MODERATOR: All right. We're going to try to sneak in two last phone calls, and our next caller is John Dobberstein with No-Till Farmer Magazine, and that will be followed by Chris Torres with Lancaster Farming Newspaper. John?

QUESTIONER (No-Till Farmer Magazine): Good morning. What kinds of programs or practices do you feel are helping the most in terms of the effect on the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

CHIEF WHITE: I'd say the workhorse program, John, is going to be the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which we call "EQIP." That is one that we have the most funding in. It also gives us the greatest latitude. We can deal with cropland there, forest, pasture, animal feeding operations. It's kind of the workhorse in the arsenal, John.

QUESTIONER (No-Till Farmer Magazine): Okay. All right.

MODERATOR: All right. And our last call is from Chris Torres with Lancaster Farming Newspaper. Thank you for joining us, Chris.

QUESTIONER (Lancaster Farming Newspaper): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. In terms of areas that need high level of treatment, are these areas concentrated, meaning, you know, are they in certain areas, you know, more than in other areas?

CHIEF WHITE: Okay. I'm going to actually defer to my colleague, Dr. Lawrence, for that.

DR. LAWRENCE: You have to remember that the study was based on a statistical sample, so that we can't map out necessarily exactly where these locations are. Having said that, we do know the kinds of soils they're on, and we do provide information in the report on soils with high leaching potential and high run-off potential. And of course, that would be, certainly, a help in targeting the conservation work on the ground.

But I think our State conservationists do a lot more detailed work with our partners. They take information from the 303(d) impaired water lists as well as input from the public stakeholders in identifying the priority watersheds they do have currently in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

CHIEF WHITE: Right. And, Chris, if I could follow up, Doug mentioned that we're working closely with the States. Every NRCS State conservationist has sat down with their State counterparts, and this also relates back to John's question as well. And we have in our ranking system made the top ranked conservation practices that rise to the top and generally get funded, we have mirrored them with what the State wants in order to meet their WIPs, their Watershed Implementation Plan, so there's a lot of close coordination at the State level.

And, Chris, Pennsylvania might be a little bit different than Virginia or Maryland, but there's a lot of close coordination.

QUESTIONER (Lancaster Farming Newspaper): If I could just squeeze in a couple more. When you talk about subsurface nitrogen loss as a challenge, I guess, what sort of things can be done to actually alleviate that problem? And the information that you'd be getting back from farmers on the things they've been putting in, is this based on, you know, them getting government money to put into these practices, or are these truly voluntary practices, who are spending their own money? Because this is becoming — that particular issue is a big issue with a lot of — it's a big issue especially for the farm groups.

CHIEF WHITE: I should mention that these are cost-share programs. This is not where NRCS is coming in and paying 100 percent. Oftentimes the cost-share rate is 50 percent. For some certain, it may go as high as 75, but in any event, the farmer is always putting in some of their own cash in here.

Now, let me talk about how you might deal with some of the high leaching soil or — I'm sorry — the subsurface nitrogen issues. You really need a comprehensive nutrient management plan, and it might consider stuff like split applications to apply the nitrogen when the plant really needs it during that part of the growing season. We actually have a pilot going on in about five watersheds using a best management practice that will get to that very issue.

We can look at drainage water management, how can we filter that or remove the nitrogen or phosphorous from that. We could look at precision nutrient applications. Chris, there is technology right now, and a lot of the ag journalists will know about this. There is now an optical sensor that as you're moving across the field will read the nitrogen levels in the plant and adjust the application according to the plant needs on the fly. The technology is stunning. We're looking at bioreactors that could be buried in a field, and you run the water through an organic system which will take the nitrogen out. We're looking at using a lot more of the high-tech, slow-release fertilizers. So that would be some of the things you could do, Chris.

QUESTIONER (Lancaster Farming Newspaper): Thank you.

MODERATOR: All righty. With that, we bring our media briefing today to a close. Our panelists have been NRCS Chief Dave White and NRCS Deputy Chief for Soil Survey and Resource Assessment Doug Lawrence, and if you want to find this report, all you have to do is go to the NRCS website, correct?

CHIEF WHITE: Right, correct.

MODERATOR: And are you going to go ahead and put that PDF file of the survey, the 44 pages, today?

CHIEF WHITE: Yeah. I think as soon as we can get a PDF or something like that, we'll put a blank survey up there. I want to apologize profusely to Jeff for miscalling him. I wrote down the name, but I wrote down Tim's name. And, Tim, hey, buddy, pick up the phone, give me a call. All right?

MODERATOR: All righty. And with that, everyone, thank you for joining us today, and that concludes today's media briefing.