On a brilliant fall day, Stan Pennington and Eric Hines ride out in a government Jeep, surveying the rolling hills of Carroll County, Maryland, but they come to a stop when the pastoral scene takes an ugly turn.
Pennington, who grew up in the area and has worked with local farmers for more than 30 years, maneuvers the vehicle to the edge of a field that looks like something from an 18th-century landscape painting. With sun shining through the October leaves, a herd of cattle grazes along a sloped pasture. It might look idyllic, but to the technicians who work for the Carroll County Soil Conservation District, something is wrong.
“The cows are in the stream,” Pennington says, gesturing toward three black bulls standing in the water, swishing their tails.
There is no fence to keep the cows in the pasture, he explains, to protect the stream from manure and sediment the animals drag into the water on their hooves.
A few cows in a small stream might not seem alarming. But manure contains pollutants that travel from farmland into local waterways and finally into the Chesapeake Bay. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, waste from livestock and poultry accounts for about half of the pollutants in the bay, one of the nation’s most environmentally threatened bodies of water.
Pennington and Hines are two agents on the front line of a campaign to keep agricultural runoff out of the bay. The effort they are involved in covers six states and the District of Columbia, is constrained by a lack of funds and limited regulatory power, and is in a desperate race to meet two deadlines. One imposed by the federal government, another measured by the gradual death of an estuary.
For decades, the Chesapeake’s fragile ecosystem has struggled to cope with elevated nitrogen and phosphorous levels that threaten water quality, fisheries, and aquatic ecosystems across its 64,000 square miles of watershed. Since 1983, states within the region have tried, and failed, to meet a series of pollution reduction goals to make the bay healthy.
In 2010, after 27 years of missed deadlines, the EPA launched an unprecedented regulatory effort that capped pollution levels on a state-by-state basis.
The federal agency established a “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for pollution and compelled Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, West Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia to draw up plans to reduce runoff from agriculture, industry, and urban areas.
The most recent assessment of progress, from December 2013, found that more than 70 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams still fall short of federal water quality goals.