Penn State researcher explores public engagement, water for agriculture

Weston Eaton, assistant research professor with the Penn State Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education Department, points to a map of Pennsylvania Thursday afternoon at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff during the Water For Agriculture Seminar.

SCOTTSBLUFF — A broad range of stakeholders can come together to better address the water and ag issues most important to them.

That’s a noble goal, but what changes come about because of those collaborative efforts?

That’s what Weston Eaton, assistant research professor with the Penn State Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education Department, aims to find out through a multi-state research project that looks at people’s interaction with water from a social science perspective. Eaton hosted an open seminar Thursday afternoon with members of a local leadership team at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff to discuss the project.

The Water for Agriculture Project, funded by the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, will look at how collaborative approaches can help address water quantity and quality issues when it comes to agriculture by implementing stakeholder engagement at pilot sites in communities in three different states: Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nebraska, (including here in the North Platte Valley). The next step will be to study and test to see what impact the collaborative approach has on the people who are involved, then link that process back to agricultural practices to see if there is a connection between the discussion and an observable change in the environment. Finally, with the lessons learned in hand, the results of project will be shared and disseminated to other areas facing similar challenges with community and stakeholder engagement as it relates to water.

Eaton said that in Nebraska, stakeholder engagement is encoded and institutionalized in the law when it comes to managing water as a natural resource, especially when it comes to Integrated Management Plans and the Platte River Recovery Program through the Natural Resources Districts and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. The push for stakeholder engagement, he argued, is more established in Nebraska than it is in Pennsylvania.

“You have these practices — that if you bring people together and get multiple perspectives, we’re going to get a better outcome,” he said. “Ultimately, we don’t really know or have a lot of empirical evidence or data on what actually does change or what happens.”

Eaton said that conventional wisdom says that a high level of engagement leads to better management practices, but when the case is made for more collaborative approaches, versus top-down mandates from legal or regulatory bodies, the effect of collaborative approaches needs to be captured, measured, and demonstrated in some way.

“If we want to have more involvement at a federal government level, or a state government level or private industry, how do we show what actually comes out of that?,” he asked.

The Water for Agriculture project will be a multi-disciplinary 4-year cooperative research project promoting sustainable water for agriculture.

“What is the connection between the way people talk about and the way people act and behave, to an actual demonstrated environmental change over time?,” Eaton asked. “That’s a big puzzle that we’re working on.”

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed: A case study

At about 200 miles of coastline, The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary (an area where fresh water meets salt water) in the United States and the third largest estuary in the world.

Water quality issues relating to nutrient, agricultural and urban runoff that impacts the Chesapeake Bay are of major concern in Pennsylvania, where many of the headwaters for the bay originate. Beyond cropping on paddocks in the river valleys, Pennsylvania is home to 16 percent of the milk dairies in the United States. Dairies average between 75 to 80 milk cows, and 99 percent of them are owned by families. The state also has a large concentration of Amish farmers, communities whose dynamics include their own sets of unique challenges.

From the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, states have been required to improve the water quality by identifying “impaired” streams and establishing total maximum daily loads (TMDL) to allocate pollutants found in those waters.

While point sources for pollution, such as pipes from sewage plants or factories, have long since been identified under the Clean Water Act and for the most part have been rectified, the non-point sources of pollution, such as runoff from fields or leaching from abandoned mine sites, continue to be a problem for Pennsylvania, Eaton said.

Scientific modeling suggests that farms in Pennsylvania contribute about 56 percent of nitrogen, 60 percent of phosphorus and 64 percent of sediment load found in waterways. The complexities, Eaton said, are that the pollutants identified as TMDLs can’t be seen or smelled. For the most part the water looks clean, which leads to mistrust and finger-pointing as to who or what causes the pollution. While there are certain water quality goals established that need to be met in order to protect Chesapeake Bay, many farmers feel they are being targeted and unfairly blamed for water quality problems, and that most harbor resentment toward upcoming proposals for regulation.

“That leads to a lot of mistrust for a scientific model or for some expert from outside the community coming in and trying to tell you that you’re part of the problem,” Eaton said. “That’s really what’s going on with the ag community.”

Water quality initiatives focus on ensuring farms meet requirements for erosion and sediment control and for manure and nutrient management — rules that have existed since after the adoption of the Clean Water Act. However, conservationists feel frustration given that farmers have not adopted practices, while farmers feel like they are being forced to do something new.

Over the last 100 years, forested areas in valleys have been removed and transformed into farm and grazing land. There has been a push from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to encourage private landowners to install as much as 100,000 acres of forested riparian buffers along streams to stabilize the TMDL content and to cool the water in streams. However, a combination of environmental complexities from acid rain and invasive species in mountainous areas have degraded the forests where much of the rain and snowmelt originates. This coupled with cultural norms that encourage neatness and well manicured areas along streams in the valley bottoms, has made adoption of those conservation and management practices slow.

Conservationists in Pennsylvania set a goal under the state’s Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) to have 60 percent of the practices needed to meet the TMDL requirements in place by 2017, with all of the practices in place by 2025. However, those goals are unlikely to be met by that deadline.

“The vision for achieving this has been changing,” Eaton said.

It wasn’t until third phase of the WIP that federal and state agencies realized that they needed to include affected individuals in the decision making process, Eaton said. The agencies have put that onus on each county’s government to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to decide what the WIP will be for them and how to implement it.

“Many people in the county planning departments, commissioners, and extension feel like this phase III has been thrust upon them,” Eaton said. “From the Water for Ag perspective, as us observing this process, we recognize that there has been very little guidance given to the counties in terms of how you hold a stakeholder collaboration and how you bring diverse voices to come up with a shared goal.”

Eaton said that the project in Pennsylvania is moving at a fast pace and is trying to do county-wide engagement in a six months, with one of major take away being that a reasonable timescale is needed to measure human and ecological change.

As other surrounding states have met their obligations, Pennsylvania has continued to feel increased pressure to act on its obligations.

“I think that is a perfect opportunity for a collaborative stakeholder-driven approach,” Eaton said.

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