Some agriculture producers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Greene County, may be mandated to install fencing to keep their cows out of streams on their properties if the state doesn’t meet its goals for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan by Dec. 31, 2025.
Committees in both the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate passed substituted versions of SB 704 and HB 1422 last week that would have required farmers with 20 or more cows to install fencing to keep them out of streams on their properties and those with more than 50 acres of cropland to submit a nutrient management plan.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-24th, submitted the senate’s substitute that keeps the target date of July 2026, but the requirements won’t come into play unless the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry and the Secretary of Natural Resources “jointly determine that none of the commonwealth’s commitments in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan has been satisfied.”
Both bills now include the formation of a stakeholders’ group and monitoring before mandatory regulations kick in.
“The more we do voluntarily, the less likely this mandate will happen,” said Greg Wilchens, manager of the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District.
He said the conservation district, which encompasses five counties—Greene, Madison, Culpeper, Orange and Rockingham—has been signing people up for the voluntary cost-share for stream exclusion fencing at nearly three times the rate they normally do and there is still money to spend.
Kendall Tyree, director of the Virginia Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts, said she is grateful for the substitutions.
“The substitute that was brought forward really helps us step back and engage in some needed stakeholder dialogue,” Tyree said. “It brings a lot of us to the table to ensure we’ve come up with a necessary plan before any action is considered or taken. The substitute outlines the stakeholder involvement and the discussion that is needed before we even get to the discussion of mandating.”
The bills direct the Secretary of Natural Resources and the Secretary of Agriculture to convene the advisory group, to consist of members from the Department of Conservation and Recreation, soil and water conservation districts, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, the Virginia Association of the Commissioners of the Revenue and the Virginia Association of Counties. Additionally, one delegate and one senator will participate in the group.
Tyree said Hanger has long worked on water quality issues, including participation on the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
“As someone who has worked on initiatives and funding to assist in the cleanup of our streams, rivers and the Bay, I have been encouraged by the significant progress we are making, including on non-point agriculture (Best Management Practices),” Hanger said. “As long as we are making progress, I would prefer that we continue to help farmers with policies, technical assistance and funding rather than put regulatory punitive programs in place.”
Tyree said the voluntary cost-share program will continue, but the state is not yet done.
“The governor’s budget provides cost-share funding at a stable level for us, but the state’s cost share needs’ assessment shows that roughly $100 million is needed across the commonwealth for the program and the technical assistance, those true boots on the ground,” she said. “We need our legislature and folks recognizing that we’ve got to fully invest and not just send a plan, but also funding to ensure we have a cost-share program and field staff technical assistance that’s robust enough to help us get there.”
Numerous farmers lined up to speak at both the senate and house committee meetings and each one said they were in support of the voluntary measures.
“I have had a wonderful outpouring of support from farmers from all over the state in support of the negotiated substitute legislation that I offered,” Hanger said. “Farmers are good stewards of the land and water and are more than willing to support our efforts through incentivized voluntary programs.”
Six states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York) and the District of Columbia are part of the Chesapeake Bay Program to clean up the watershed.
Del. Robert Bloxom Jr. (R-100th) moved for the bill to pass out of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.
“I think we’re the only state that’s met all of our goals,” Bloxom said. “With that, we didn’t need as much big government. I thought this was a much better approach.”
Tuesday, Feb. 11, was scheduled as crossover day for the General Assembly, meaning the House and Senate were each scheduled to begin taking up the others’ legislation on Wednesday, Feb. 12, after press time.
In 2019, the state allocated more than $4 million for agriculture producers to participate in the voluntary programs to achieve the threshold reductions necessary for the Chesapeake Bay plan.
The new options include payment and tax credits for the land that is taken out of service to create the buffers around streambeds.
The program has new options from a 10-foot buffer for the streams to a 50-foot buffer and everything in between.
Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District has additional programs, including riparian buffer plantings, cover crops, nutrient management planning, reforestation of erodible crop and pastureland, woodland buffer filter areas and more.
For more information on the cost-share programs, call (540) 825-8591 or visit the district’s website www.culpeperswcd.org and search agriculture programs.