From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):
The Colorado Water Congress last week took a look at the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, known as MAEAP. It’s a program that has had limited success in other states, largely dependent on whether it gets support from the ag community.
According to Joe Kelpinski, who runs the program for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Urban Development, the ag industry is being pressured to do “something” to demonstrate that farms and related businesses are being responsible about water quality. “We were under tremendous pressure from the environmental movement, especially for livestock,” Kelpinski told the audience at the CWC’s Vail summer conference.
That’s where MAEAP comes in. About 15 years ago, a coalition of farmers, commodity groups, state and federal agencies, and conservation and environmental groups in Michigan designed the voluntary program to minimize agricultural pollution risks. But it had low participation until 2011, when the state legislature added incentives to encourage more farmers to be involved.
The program has three phases: education, on-farm risk assessment and third-party verification. Producers are required to attend a state-reviewed meeting in environmental best management practices and conservation.
In the second phase, state technicians work directly with the farmers to provide technical assistance, conduct a risk assessment on the operation; whether it’s farm, livestock, cropping or forestry/wetland and habitat. The technician walks the operation with the producer, looking at pesticide or fertilizer storage, soil and water erosion and wells, or location of wetlands, for example. The assessments are confidential. The technician then scores the assessment and comes up with an improvement or action plan, and what to do to mitigate risks so the third phase, verification, can take place.
The verification is done by a third-party verifier. Kelpinski said environmentalists wanted the third-party verification instead of self-certification. A verification then lasts for five years.
According to the program’s website, verification reduces legal and environmental risks through use of proven scientific standards, balances efficient production and sound environmental practices; and helps ensure safe storage of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides. Verification is also a tool for local emergency responders. Technicians develop emergency plans, using aerial photographs, which help first responders know where fuel or fertilizer is stored when there’s a fire or other emergency situation.
With these three systems, “we can look at farms holistically,” Kelpinski said.
But buy-in from the agriculture industry is essential, he added. “If you don’t have industry support, it will fail,” and he noted that other states have tried without having buy-in from the agricultural industry, only to see their programs flop. Michigan’s program now has about 11,000 participating farms, out of 52,000 total in the state. Kelpinski said that last year, sediment runoff was reduced by 357 tons, phosphorus levels have dropped and 566,000 acres have approved pesticide management plans. And once the incentives were added in 2011, the department went from 150 verifications per year to about 500.
The incentives included eliminating fines for accidental discharges, which Kelpinski called “the golden carrot.” There are also incentives related to watershed management.
Cindy Lair of the Colorado Department of Ag has had a proposal waiting for a similar program for several years, and believes the time has come. “But we won’t do anything without complete support of the industry,” she said. “Farmers are asking for details and for certainty.” She’s hoping for dialogue between Colorado ag producers and those in other states where this program has been successful. “It would take the scare and fear out of it,” she said. Ag producers feel vulnerable about this, but there are benefits, too, she said, such as getting higher ranking for certain federal programs that provide technical and financial assistance on conservation practices. She believes a pilot program might be the best way to get this started.
“Municipalities have already been working on their side of nutrient pollution,” Lair explained. “It’s appropriate for the ag industry to show some goodwill and activity in this area.”
A group in Colorado is already looking at something similar to MAEAP. The Colorado Agricultural Nutrient Taskforce started last January, in response to a new regulation from the Colorado Water Quality Monitoring Council, part of the state’s water quality control division. Regulation 85 looks at nutrient pollution resulting from excess nitrogen and phosphorus, a leading cause of degradation of U.S. water quality, according to the council. Reg 85, as it is known, seeks to establish scientifically-based nutrient regulations and allow those who discharge those chemicals time to develop plans to begin treating both nitrogen and phosphorus. The regulation was passed in March 2012, with a ten-year waiver for ag on nutrient control.
Mary Gearhart of Brown and Caldwell is facilitating the taskforce. She explained that in 2022, if there has been no substantial progress by the ag community in improving water quality, the commission will consider whether to regulate agricultural runoff and discharge. “It’s a touchy subject,” Gearhart noted. The taskforce is looking at a modest assurance program, not as substantial as Michigan, she said, adding that a lot of farms are doing best practices but there isn’t a formal documentation or verification process.
Former ag Commissioner Don Ament of Iliff is a member of the taskforce. Water quality is becoming more of an issue, he told this reporter. “Agriculture is very willing to step up to the plate and do their fair share. It just needs to be science-based,” he explained. “I want ag to be in the front, being a part of the solution — but a scientific one, not an emotional one.”
Reductions in ag runoff have improved dramatically, Ament said. “We can make the case that we’re an environmentally-sound partner. We can demonstrate a lot of that already.”
And how will the legislature react? Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, told this reporter he is hesitant to back yet another program with a permit or registration process for a farmer to do what they’re already doing. “We’ve become a little gun-shy of giving any information to government on how we do business,” he said. “The vast majority are doing things correctly and doing things that are environmentally sensitive, because they have to leave the land better tomorrow than they did today, or it doesn’t provide for their families.”