Photo courtesy NRCSPhoto courtesy NRCS

Senate Bill 1029—The Maryland Agricultural Certainty Program—Passes

More Pollution Reduction, Sooner, Cheaper

One of several major bills passed by the 2013 Maryland General Assembly and supported by CBF was SB1029, the "Maryland Agricultural Certainty Program." This legislation offers farmers who voluntarily meet 2025 water quality goals now (12 years ahead of schedule) flexibility when they meet any potential new laws and regulations. The program offers certainty that farmers are actually reducing pollution on their farms, and also gives farmers business certainty once they meet all water quality standards.

Key Points of the Program

Farmers who volunteer for this program will be going above and beyond any current legal requirements. That means Maryland will realize more pollution reductions from farms, sooner.

To become certified, farmers will be required to address all soil and water quality issues on the farm. The stewardship practices required under the certainty program are not currently required of any Maryland farmer.

The program does not offer any special treatment for farmers. Other pollution sectors already receive a kind of certainty through permit programs. For example, a sewage plant operator who agrees to reduce pollution to a set amount in a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit gets flexibility from potential new standards for the length of the permit.

Reducing farm pollution is far more cost-effective than reducing other types of water pollution. So it makes sense to use effective tools to reduce farm pollution.

Major Elements of the Legislation

  • The bill creates a voluntary program to certify agricultural operations willing to meet tough water quality requirements for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in line with the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Certification will provide the farmer flexibility as to when he or she has to meet potential new regulatory requirements or nutrient and sediment load reallocations for a period of 10 years. The farmer still must comply with any potential laws or rules by the end of the certification period.
  • On-farm inspections by an independent third party selected at random will be conducted at a minimum of every three years to verify compliance. The agricultural operation also must submit annual nutrient management records, soil test data, crop fertility recommendations, operation maps, and soil conservation and water quality records to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). The bill balances the need for strict compliance and encouragement to participate.
  • MDA and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) will create a program to certify third-party verifiers who will conduct inspections and report relevant on-farm data to MDA prior to certification. Inspection reports will include details regarding continued compliance of the operation, including specific nutrient application and maintenance of Best Management PracticesThe bill also provides for decertification of a verifier or farmer who fails to meet the program requirements. Furthermore, the bill addresses potential conflicts of interest between the writing of conservation plans, the verification of those plans, and on-farm inspections.
  • The legislation creates yearly reporting requirements for agricultural operations that are certified, while protecting operator anonymity. 
  • The bill creates authority for MDE to assist in developing program regulations, on-site inspection needs, and the inspection of farm records. 
  • The law creates a stakeholder group to help develop regulations and evaluate the program every four years.
  • The certification program does not affect the application and enforcement of laws and regulations under the federal Clean Water Act or Maryland laws concerning water resources, wetlands, riparian rights, water discharge permits, critical area laws, the adoption of growth tier maps, or land development. 

Program Benefits

The program

  • reduces pollution from farms now.
  • assures greater accountability of farmers. It assures that a certified operation is in compliance with all applicable regulations and maintaining its BMPs through annual reports, three-year on-site inspections and a signed agreement.
  • gives the public access to more data regarding farming practices by supplying data at the watershed level. Currently, the public has access to a very limited amount of data about farm practices.
  • allows MDA to better focus its limited resources on operations that are not part of the program. It's like certifying the "A students", then focusing on struggling students.
  • provides MDA with valuable on-farm information about BMP implementation.
  • supports the local Watershed Implementation Plan by providing assurance that nutrient loads are being reduced.

 

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