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U.S. agriculture secretary touts farm efforts in bay cleanup

RICHMOND, Va. — Farmers have significantly reduced the flow of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay, with new conservation practices keeping more than 15 million tons of sediment alone out of the estuary, a report released Thursday said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released the results of farm surveys to document how voluntary, incentive-based approaches to agricultural conservation have worked. The surveys looked at those practices from 2003 through 2006 and again in 2011.

“What we found from this assessment is conservation is working and working in a very significant way,” Vilsack said in a teleconference.

The surveys found that farmers and ranchers used an array of conservation practices such as cover crops and buffers to limit sediment and other pollutants that otherwise would end up in the bay.

Vilsack said the surveys illustrate that “farmers are stepping up” to reduce pollution in the bay, which is amid a massive cleanup involving six states and Washington, D.C.

“We see it as a reaffirmation of the stewardship of the landowners in the Chesapeake Bay area and we think it basically points out that conservation is critical,” he said.

The sediment kept out of the bay annually would fill 150,000 rail cars on a train that would stretch 1,700 miles, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The surveys also found that nitrogen levels have been reduced by 48.6 million pounds each year and phosphorus by 7.1 million pounds.

Those nutrients, as well as sediment, are among the ingredients that cloud water in the bay, fueling the growth of algae blooms that snuff oxygen from the water.

A report earlier this week by the Chesapeake Bay Program found that clean-up efforts in the bay are lagging. The “Bay Barometer” issued by the federal-state partnership overseeing the restoration found that the bay and the rivers and streams that flow into it are not achieving water quality goals.

Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, the district and three other states are on a federally mandated “pollution diet” in an effort to restore the bay. The multi-billion-dollar effort was launched by the Environmental Protection Agency after years of failure by the states in the bay’s watershed to take action. The restoration goal is 2025.