MORGANTOWN (AP) - Farmers in eastern West Virginia have been working for decades to clean up rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed - not only for the greater good, but for their own.
"You can't raise livestock or keep animals without a good water source. That's one of the essential nutrients for any of us, for life," said Hardy County Extension Agent Dave Workman, who works with farmers in the heart of the state's poultry industry.
"So nobody's going to really intentionally mess up their water," he said. "But, as with everything, you can always improve a little bit more."
And that's what a coalition of state agencies is now requesting - a little bit more.
The latest version of the state's Chesapeake Bay Watershed Improvement Plan calls on farmers to increase cover-crop plantings nearly 70 percent and dramatically expand stream restoration efforts to include 8,400 acres by 2025.
Bay cleanup has been a particularly important issue for farmers because fertilizer and manure contain nutrients like nitrogen, which can wash from West Virginia's rivers and streams into the bay and contaminate the water. High levels of those nutrients can make the water toxic to aquatic life.
The Department of Environmental Protection wants to hear from land owners and others who would be affected by those and other changes laid out in the latest draft of a plan going to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Workman said farmers in the South Branch Valley aren't likely to object. They see themselves as partners with the government agencies, not adversaries. Voluntary changes they've already made have left water far cleaner than it was 20 or 30 years ago, he said.
Plus, they've had input on the plan now being considered.
In 2009, the federal government ordered six watershed states and the District of Columbia to develop Watershed Implementation Plans, setting specific target reductions for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff from West Virginia.
The EPA wants current nutrient levels cut 60 percent by 2017, and it wants measures in place to meet other targets by 2025. West Virginia submitted a plan two years ago, then redrafted it to include many changes for agriculture.
In the latest version, EPA assigns 75 percent of the pollution from West Virginia's animal feeding operations to a part of the plan reserved for regulated pollution sources.
Alana Hartman, Potomac Basin coordinator for the state environmental agency, said that signals a shift and warns farmers that these operations could be subjected to state or federal permitting to protect water quality.
Although EPA has always had the authority to invoke the federal Clean Water Act and require permits for pollution sources, Hartman said it's rarely done so for farms in West Virginia.
"By putting it in writing," she said, "it just makes everyone more aware of it."
Other goals in the plan include:
-Putting 90,000 acres in eight counties into nutrient management plans to control nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment runoff by 2025, an increase of 15,000 acres. That change also expands the target area from just Berkeley and Jefferson counties to the others in the watershed: Pendleton, Grant, Mineral, Hardy, Hampshire and Morgan.
-Fencing off 5,200 acres by 2025 to reduce animals' access to streams.
-Retiring 5,018 acres from agricultural use.
-Expanding forest buffer areas by 1,570 acres.
The plan originally envisioned shipping 40,000 tons of poultry litter out of the watershed counties and into counties that could use it as fertilizer, but that figure was cut to 12,000 tons. After talking with farmers and running computer models, the team realized "litter transfer would be really, really expensive, and we wouldn't get much impact," Hartman said.
Instead, the plan focuses on other options that are more palatable to farmers. When all the strategies are put into the same model, Hartman said, West Virginia still meets the EPA's goals.
Many changes West Virginia has already made have not yet been counted toward EPA's mandate, she said, so the state is now working to document all of those.
The DEP is accepting public comment on the plan until Feb. 20.