U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy joined Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday to tout a nutrient-trading program they hope could become a model for farmers and ranchers in other parts of the country.
At a news conference at a state transportation operation center in Fairfax, McAuliffe explained that, to improve the health and economy of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia’s Department of Transportation will buy phosphorous credits from Virginia farmers in the Potomac and James River watersheds. Those farmers’ practices have permanently reduced the amount of phosphorus flowing into those rivers and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
The nutrient credits are “certified, regulated, transparent and affordable,” McAuliffe said, although the amounts of money involved were not discussed at the news conference.
John Harrison, an Appomattox, Va., farmer, explained that he removed 100 acres of land from agricultural production, which means that he will no longer apply fertilizer to that land and that nitrogen and phosphorus will not flow into the waterways. Harrison said he would invest the money from the credits, and the income will allow the farm to stay in his family.
USDA also noted it has posted a video on the Virginia program and Harrison’s Wildwood Farm.
The farm practices are certified by the state as “nutrient credit banks” and come solely from private investors, reducing reliance on public funds and generating a new revenue stream for participating farmers, EPA noted in a news release.
These credits cost VDOT approximately 50% less than other, more traditional engineered pollution reduction practices, such as detention ponds and underground filters.
These banks also advance other goals such as wildlife habitat, stream buffers and land preservation, EPA added.
“Virginia’s nutrient trading program is a strong example of how to create economic opportunity and new income for rural America while protecting and improving local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay,” McCarthy said at the news conference.
“The program is a win for the environment and our economy, and we encourage states to look at Virginia as a model and a resource as they adopt similar programs.”
“USDA applauds the Commonwealth of Virginia for showing tremendous leadership on this issue,” said Vilsack. “Efforts like these provide new and additional income streams for farmers and ranchers, while improving water quality and saving Virginia money. I am hopeful this initiative can be replicated across the nation.”
“The Chesapeake Bay faces numerous challenges, and the Commonwealth of Virginia is responding with innovative thinking and collaboration across sectors,” said Mike Boots, who leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“Not only do creative approaches like these provide new markets for private investors and generate new revenue for farmers, they also bolster the strength of our natural resources, improving their resilience to threats posed by a changing climate and other stressors,” he said.
Boots said that the nutrient trading is an example of the programs that President Barack Obama wanted to encourage with a 2009 executive order.
But Food & Water Watch said the program will not achieve the goals of reducing pollution from agriculture.
“Food & Water Watch has reviewed similar nutrient trading programs in the Chesapeake Bay region and the Ohio River Basin,” Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a news release.
“In every case, these schemes have allowed polluters to avoid compliance with the law while paying farmers for pollution reductions that are never properly verified. We expect the program in Virginia to be no different.”
Food & Water Watch called for more mandatory regulatory restrictions on nutrient pollution rather than relying on voluntary measures. “If the state were really serious about reducing nutrient pollution and cleaning up the Bay, then voluntary compliance would not be an option,” Hauter said.