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Background

This page contains relevant background on agriculture and water quality in Pennsylvania and what led to PA in the Balance.

On March 1-3, 2016, the College of Agricultural Sciences together with other partners hosted the Pennsylvania in the Balance Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  This conference provided a collaborative forum where motivated leaders in agriculture and the environment identified new, innovative solutions that can help ensure vibrant, productive agriculture while meeting water quality goals for the Commonwealth’s rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay. The conference acknowledged and commended  progress and successes to date, but recognized that much more needs to be done and new and innovative approaches need to be developed and implemented.  

Almost 120 diverse stakeholders attended, including  farmers, agricultural industry representatives, scientists, federal and state agencies, researchers and Extension personnel, agricultural and environmental attorneys, nonprofit conservation organizations, conservation districts, planners, and agricultural consultants.

The conference framework included initial plenary sessions on day one, where experts shared relevant background information and scientific studies related to Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay. A producer panel representing a wide diversity of Pennsylvania agriculture shared their perspectives to begin the second day. Over days two and three, attendees participated in facilitated small group work sessions on key topics, including targeting resources, technical assistance, innovations in incentives, compliance, and new funding strategies. Each small group represented a cross section of the stakeholders involved in these issues. The format allowed leaders from diverse perspectives to work together to identify barriers, opportunities and solutions, ask and answer hard questions, facilitate productive dialogue, build trust, and identify pathways forward to implement actionable outcomes.

At the end of three days, clear themes emerged which, if seized upon, can form the basis of a new consensus based, collaboratively focused strategy to ensure profitable and productive agriculture while achieving water quality goals. This strategy embraces agriculture and its ingrained culture of stewardship, and looks for leadership from agriculture to be the solution to clean water.

Initial recommendations and action items were identified at the close of the conference. These are being advanced collectively under the leadership of the Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center (AEC). Discussions at the conference and in a series of post-conference meetings and briefings, including a full day workshop at which conference attendees were reconvened, resulted in the identification of four priority initiatives to move forward.

The collective momentum and effort stemming from the conference has the potential to complement and enhance the Commonwealth’s efforts to improve local water quality while also restoring the Chesapeake Bay, including development of Pennsylvania’s Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) for meeting the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The conference created a renewed energy among participants and a commitment to take collective action moving forward to resolve this complex and challenging problem.

Pennsylvania’s Heritage: Agriculture and Water

Agriculture is a vital and prominent part of Pennsylvania’s heritage. The Commonwealth’s coat of arms, manifested on the state flag, includes multiple symbols invoking its rich agricultural resources and heritage—a plough; two horses; three shafts of wheat. Prime farmland soils and abundant rainfall make much of Pennsylvania highly suitable for agriculture. Proximity to major markets on the eastern seaboard accommodates commodity production of many marketable products.

Today agriculture remains a dominant part of the Pennsylvania landscape and economy. Pennsylvania is home to 57,900 farms producing a diversity of food, fiber and energy products. (NASS 2015). Pennsylvania farmers rank in the top ten in the nation for production of milk, poultry and eggs, fruit, nursery and greenhouse plants, and Christmas trees. (NASS 2015).

Pennsylvania is also blessed with water. An estimated 86,000 miles of rivers and streams flow through the Commonwealth. (DEP Draft Report 2016). These natural resources provide drinking water, water for use in agriculture and industry, habitat for aquatic species including the Eastern brook trout, and opportunities for recreational enjoyment.

While agriculture plays an important role in the Commonwealth’s economy, cultural heritage, unique quality of life and stewardship of its abundant natural resources, it also contributes to water quality impacts. Over 20,000 miles of streams are impaired in Pennsylvania. (DEP Draft Report 2016). The top cause of impairment is nutrient and sediment runoff from agriculture, resulting in over 6,400 miles of impaired waters. (DEP Draft Report 2016).

These are not easy problems to fix. Impacts to water quality from excess nutrients and sediment are among the most complex and pervasive environmental problems faced today, not only in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania but across the nation and the globe. In the United States, while the federal Clean Water Act has largely succeeded in addressing point source pollution, nonpoint source pollution from agricultural and urban lands remains a major, unsolved problem.

Pennsylvania is faced with particularly challenging issues as approximately 33,600 of its active farms are located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where federal cleanup requirements and initiatives are placing demands upon the Commonwealth to meet the nutrient and sediment reduction requirements from agriculture and other sources. Any solution must balance the Commonwealth’s interests in a vibrant agricultural sector, local water quality, and limited state and federal resources.

Ag in Balance


In 2008, the College of Agricultural Sciences, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), the Pennsylvania agricultural industry, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and numerous other non-governmental organizations, sponsored the highly successful Agriculture in Balance Conference to explore these issues. In preparation for that conference a vision team was assembled consisting of leaders in Pennsylvania agriculture and the environment.

The team worked together in facilitated workshops to create a vision of what Agriculture in Balance means for Pennsylvania. Secretary Russell Redding, who was then Governor Rendell’s Secretary of Agriculture and serves again in that role for Governor Wolf, coined the term Agriculture in Balance. The vision continues to have resonance today:

Agriculture in Balance is profitable, productive, progressive, and proactive, preserving its rich heritage of community involvement and environmental stewardship to build a better Pennsylvania. It provides an abundant and diverse supply of safe food, fiber, fodder, and renewable fuel where farmsteads, towns, and cities are nestled within a healthy mosaic of fields, forests, pastures, woodlands, and flowing waters. Agriculture in Balance is engaged in every level of society from the local community to the nation’s capital, providing equitable opportunities for livelihood and enrichment.

The team also developed a white paper to unpack the vision statement so interested individuals and organizations can better understand what Pennsylvania’s vision for Ag in Balance means. (Appendix B).

During a three day working conference in June 2008, the vision statement and white paper, along with an accompanying video produced by Penn State Public Media, was used to stimulate thought and discussion of ideas on how to reach Ag in Balance. Among the ideas shared were improving training and communication of the science and current research underpinning conservation practices, facilitating partnerships that work collaboratively to improve water quality on working landscapes, and build success stories in local, ag-impaired watersheds.

Many of the successes discussed below as “Pennsylvania’s Progress” stem from the ideas, energy and momentum achieved at the Ag in Balance conference in 2008. This conference also served as the foundation on which the 2016 Pennsylvania in the Balance collaboration was built.

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL


Another prominent event impacting agriculture and water quality in Pennsylvania happened two years after the 2008 Ag in Balance conference. In December 2010, as required by the federal Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

The TMDL establishes allowable loads for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment sufficient to meet water quality standards for the Chesapeake Bay, and the necessary load reductions that must be made to achieve water quality goals. It requires states within the Bay watershed to develop and implement watershed implementation plans (WIPs) to meet their responsible load reductions from all sectors, including agriculture. States establish two year milestones in meeting their reduction obligations, with 60% implementation required by 2017 and 100% implementation required by 2025. EPA reviews and evaluates state progress toward meeting their milestones and goals, and can employ federal “backstops” if states are not making sufficient progress in meeting obligations. (EPA 2010).

For Pennsylvania agriculture, the TMDL has meant a greater focus on reducing nutrient and sediment losses from agriculture. It has resulted in clearly delineated load reduction obligations for the ag sector. The obligations are significant.  According to Pennsylvania’s WIP, by 2025 farms in the Bay watershed in Pennsylvania must reduce loads of nitrogen by 25.8 million lbs/yr, phosphorus by 745,000 lbs/yr, and sediment by 263,500 tons/yr. (DEP 2011).

To meet these load reduction obligations, Pennsylvania’s WIP calls for a variety of measures to be taken, including ensuring farms achieve baseline compliance with state environmental laws that pertain to agriculture. These include ensuring that farms have and are implementing an agricultural erosion and sediment control (Ag E&S) plan and, if applicable, a manure management plan or nutrient management plan.  (DEP 2011).

The WIP also calls for significant implementation of agricultural conservation practices across Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed by the year 2025. Among other practices, implementation goals include 1.6 million acres in enhanced nutrient management, over 400,000 acres in cover crops, 111,000 acres in forest riparian buffers, 260,000 acres in land retirement, and installation of animal waste management systems to handle waste from over 645,000 animal units. (DEP 2011).

Pennsylvania's Progress


Agriculture has accomplished much since Ag in Balance was held in 2008. Progress is being made, too, toward meeting Chesapeake Bay TMDL goals. A number of priority conservation practices have been implemented and reported to EPA since the TMDL was finalized. As of  2014, these include over 72,000 acres of conservation tillage, 110,000 acres of pasture management, over 15,300 acres of forest riparian buffers, 184,000 acres of cropland with conservation plans, installation of animal waste management systems to handle waste from 144,000 animal units, and 1,300 acres treated with barnyard runoff controls. (DEP 2015).

Among recent success stories is the Conewago Creek Conservation Collaborative Initiative. While there is a long history of conservation work in the Conewago Creek watershed—a 53.2 square mile watershed in Dauphin, Lancaster and Lebanon Counties—since 2009, the Conewago Creek Initiative, a partnership of over thirty organizations, has been working cooperatively to increase watershed engagement and work with farmers and landowners to adopt land management practices to improve water quality. The partnership is facilitated by the AEC and was supported from 2009 to 2013 by a Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.  Further support was provided by USDA’s designation of the Conewago as a “Showcase Watershed” in 2010 and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) funding through the Section 319 nonpoint source pollution control program.

The Conewago Initiative’s work resulted in increased citizen engagement and outreach, greater adoption of agricultural conservation practices, and positive water quality improvement trends. From 2009-2013, over forty outreach events engaging over 1,300 participants were held in the watershed. Adoption rates increased for many priority practices, some dramatically so. Total practices implemented during this time span include over 7,600 acres of those practices reported in acres (including cover crops, conservation tillage, and forest riparian buffers); 20 miles of those practices reported in linear feet (fencing, terraces, stream bank restoration, etc.); and 60 other practices (such as stream crossings, waste storage facilities, off stream watering, etc.).

In York County, improvements to an agriculturally impaired watershed resulted in water quality benefits so significant that DEP removed a stream segment from the impaired waters list. Pierceville Run, a tributary to Codorus Creek, was listed as impaired due to sediment runoff from agriculture in 2002. In 2006, a variety of partners, including the Izaak Walton League of America, DEP, York County Conservation District, and Aquatic Resource Restoration Company, implemented a stream restoration project in lower Pierceville Run. Forest riparian buffers and stream bank fencing were also installed under the USDA Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).

Following restoration, DEP monitored the project area for pebble counts. Trends showed larger gravel and cobbles increasing overtime as fine sediments decreased. Aquatic habitat and macroinvertebrates were assessed in 2011. Biological integrity scores were indicative of a healthy, unimpaired stream, allowing DEP to delist a 1.6 mile stream segment in 2012.

Another successful trend is increasing adoption of no-till and cover crops throughout the Commonwealth. Contributing to these positive trends are grassroots, farmer-led efforts, prioritization of Extension based outreach and education, and innovative incentive programs.

The Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance was formed in 2005 by a group of like-minded producers who have used no-till in their operations and know the many benefits it has to offer. Over the last decade, the Alliance has worked to promote the successful application of no-till through shared ideas, experiences, education and new technology. As producers implement and improve upon their systems, the benefits of cover crops to soil health and the environment became increasingly clear. Through the work of the Alliance and its peer-to-peer educational approach, many producers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have converted to no-till and begun to plant cover crops over the last decade.

Penn State Extension has also prioritized no-till and cover crops in recent years. Much of Penn State’s current research, extension and outreach in agronomy is exploring and disseminating the multiple benefits of these practices and finding ways to get more conservation on the ground.  Through a NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, Penn State Extension implemented a robust education and outreach program to promote cover crops. From 2009-2013, Extension staff worked with others to implement 10 field scale demonstration sites, over 50 field walks and nearly 30 workshops, and produce numerous videos and news articles. These efforts reached thousands of farmers throughout Pennsylvania. During this same time period, cover crops increased in Pennsylvania by 360,000 acres based on remote sensing analysis.

Among the more innovative incentive programs in the Commonwealth is the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program. REAP is a tax credit program administered by the State Conservation Commission that allows producers to earn state tax credits for agricultural improvements to water quality. REAP was signed into law in 2007. Since that time it has made it more affordable for farmers to transition to no till. To date nearly 1,500 no-till planters and drills have been purchased statewide using REAP.

Federal contributions to the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been significant during this timeframe, and have put a significant amount of conservation on the ground in Pennsylvania. Since the 2008 Farm Bill, which ushered in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has allocated over $190 million to Pennsylvania farmers to install conservation practices to improve water quality in the Bay watershed. (NRCS 2016). These include nearly 400 comprehensive nutrient management plans, over 750 animal waste storage facilities, over 41,000 acres of cover crops and another 40,000 acres of conservation tillage, and over 575 feet of fencing. (NRCS 2016).

These numbers exclude USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which are administered by the Farm Survey Agency (FSA) and are the primary program and funding source for implementing forest riparian buffers. Since 1998, 24,000 acres of forest riparian buffers have been established in Pennsylvania through CREP.

NRCS is also a leader in training Pennsylvania’s conservation professionals and providing valuable education to farmers on land and water stewardship, through programs like its “Unlock the Secrets of the Soil” soil health initiative.

Pennsylvania’s progress has manifested itself in good news in our rivers and streams. The US Geological Survey conducts water quality monitoring of rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed under the Chesapeake Bay Nontidal Network. In 2015, USGS analyzed the nutrient and sediment load trends of 17 stations in Pennsylvania for which data existing over this time period. For nitrogen, 14 of 17 stations showed decreasing load (improving) trends. Similar trends were observed for phosphorus (13 of 17 improving; 1 with no trend), with steadier trends for sediment (8 of 16 improving; 5 no trend). (USGS 2015).

Despite this progress, Pennsylvania remains significantly behind on its Chesapeake Bay milestones. In June 2015, EPA released its interim evaluation of Pennsylvania’s 2014-2015 milestones and WIP progress. While acknowledging that Pennsylvania did increase BMP implementation and was on track to meet 2017 targets for phosphorus, it was not on track for nitrogen or sediment. (EPA 2015). For nitrogen in particular, EPA found Pennsylvania to be “substantially off track,” needing to reduce loads from agriculture by 14.6 million pounds to meet the 2017 interim goal of 60%. (EPA 2015). According to EPA, priority conservation practices on which Pennsylvania lags significantly include enhanced nutrient management, forest riparian buffers and grass buffers. (EPA 2015). A similar assessment was released by EPA in June, 2016.

Because of this assessment, EPA kept Pennsylvania at “backstop actions level” in its TMDL review and assessment, a heightened level of scrutiny to which EPA moved Pennsylvania in 2014. This heightened level of scrutiny means that EPA may institute federal backstops if programs, policies or initiatives are not developed to accelerate Pennsylvania’s efforts.  Indeed, in 2015, EPA took action to withhold approximately $3 million in federal funding to Pennsylvania until it produced a strategy demonstrating how it would get back on pace to meet its goals. Further EPA backstop measures could include expansion of permitting, permit application objections, redirection or conditioning of federal grants, increased EPA enforcement, or other possible measures.

A New Strategy


In January 2016, Pennsylvania unveiled a new strategy to enhance its Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, leading EPA to restore the $3 million in funding. Announced by the secretaries of DEP, PDA, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Strategy  has a Pennsylvania-centric goal of improving local water quality by reducing nutrient and sediment loads in Pennsylvania waterways. By focusing on local water quality improvements, restoration of the receiving downstream waterbody—the Chesapeake Bay—will be achieved. (DEP 2016).

The strategy seeks to focus and increase resources and technical assistance, reinvigorate partnerships, organize for success and create a culture of compliance. It has six elements:

  1. Address pollutant reduction by inspecting 10% of farms and municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) in the watershed annually, ensuring development and use of manure management and ag E&S plans; and instituting enforcement for non-compliance.
  2. Quantify undocumented conservation practices in watersheds impaired by agriculture or stormwater, and put more high-impact, low-cost practices on the ground.
  3. Improve reporting, record keeping, and data systems to provide better documentation and obtain maximum credit toward Bay goals.
  4. Identify legislative, programmatic or regulatory changes to provide the additional tools and resources necessary to meet Bay goals by 2025.
  5. Establish a DEP Chesapeake Bay Office to coordinate development, implementation and funding of Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay efforts.
  6. Obtain additional resources for water quality improvement.

(DEP 2016)

To meet the annual farm inspection goals, DEP will work with cooperating county conservation districts, using existing funds to shift their Chesapeake Bay obligations from 100 educational farm visits to 50 farm inspections per full time person funded annually. In addition, DEP regional staff will also be conducting inspections. The goal is to complete up to 3300 inspections per year. These inspections will initially be focused on whether farmers have their required ag E&S plans and manure management plans. (DEP 2016).

Among the highest priority conservation practices on which the strategy focuses is forest riparian buffers. Based on progress to date, 95,000 acres of new forest riparian buffers must still be implemented in the Bay watershed by 2025 order to meet the goals set forth in Pennsylvania’s WIP. DCNR will lead this renewed emphasis on riparian forest buffers, establishing a Riparian Buffer Advisory Committee to explore new innovations and strategies in order to accomplish this goal. (DEP 2016).

Various measures will be employed to quantify and report previously undocumented conservation practices implemented in Pennsylvania, including a farmer survey launched by Penn State in January 2016 and developed in collaboration with DEP, PDA, State Conservation Commission, Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, PennAg Industries, Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Pennsylvania Farmers Union. It asks farmers questions about conservation practices installed voluntarily and using their own money for which data is currently lacking. A pilot project with NRCS using aerial imagery to document conservation practices in teh Potomac watershed was also conducted in 2016.