Rising Sea Levels: A Growing Threat to Delmarva Agriculture

June 21, 2018

For the first time in the 12 years since the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has been calculating scores, the Chesapeake Bay report card is trending in the right direction. Scientists said this month that the latest data shows statistically significant evidence that the positive trend in the ecosystem health of the nation’s largest estuary is real, and that efforts to improve conditions in the bay are working.

The center says five out of seven indicators of bay health improved or remained the same in 2017. Aquatic grasses, which are important for crab and stiped bass habitat, improved to the highest level ever recorded – a finding scientists say is a positive beacon and a necessary foundation for bay restoration.

Improved conditions in the Bay are attributable in large part to the multi-stakeholder, private/public-sector initiatives that have formed to save the nation’s largest estuary. Those efforts include the first large landscape project launched by Solutions from the Land (SfL) three years ago – the Delmarva Land and Litter Challenge, which brought together stakeholders to develop strategies to abate poultry-related nutrient pollution on the Delmarva Peninsula.

While the center’s report on the Bay is good news, scientists emphasize that more work must be done and that momentum must be maintained. Particularly troubling the rise in sea level due to warming water temperatures bought on by climate change. The rising water levels are impacting land that has for centuries served as rich and vital farmland, increasing the risk of flooding and, even more insidiously, posing a threat underground where saltwater is intruding into the soil and ultimately rendering it useless for crop growth.

A map of the eastern half of the United States – prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists and drawing from the group’s own research – shows locations particularly susceptible to flooding and intrusion. The Delmarva Peninsula is situated on the map in the middle of a huge mid-Atlantic cluster of indicators representing locations at risk from rising sea levels.

The vulnerabilities and threats rising sea levels are posing to Bay area farmlands was affirmed by remarks this week from Maryland’s Secretary of Agriculture Joseph Bartenfelder to stakeholders at a soil health conference in Washington, DC. However, he also commended agricultural producers in the region for actively working to improve the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries, using practices that reduce nutrient runoff while also helping stem climate change. Bartenfelder noted that Maryland is among only a handful of states that have passed legislation to promote climate-friendly agricultural practices.

Maryland farmers are getting some help from Kate Tully, another scientist at the University of Maryland who has for over a year led a research team investigating the state’s Lower Eastern Shore. There, she’s found that intruding saltwater increases the potential for large releases of “legacy nutrients” – phosphorous and nitrate – from cultivated lands years after they have been applied. The flow of these previously dormant inputs downstream to waterways and marshes can result in devastating costs for both agriculture and the environment.

Tully and her team are studying how cover crops – salt-tolerant soy, barley, rapeseed, sorghum and switchgrass, among others – can induce from the threatened soil attributes such as on-farm nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and improved water quality. The researchers are looking for information they can give farmers affected by saltwater intrusion to make good management decisions that can benefit their operations and protect the environment.

The National Oceanic and Air Administration (NOAA) says that last month was the warmest May on record, and that the continental United States had its hottest 3-, 4- and 5-year periods ever recorded. More ominously, according to a report from Reuters news service, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded the world is on track to exceed by 2040 the 1.5-degree Celsius temperature limit called for under the Paris climate agreement. These disclosures are harbingers of increasingly harsh conditions that will be faced by agricultural producers charged with meeting an ever-growing demand for food.

Solutions from the Land commends those like Dr. Tully and others who are seeking answers to the questions agricultural producers are asking as they deal with a changing climate. SfL calls on farmers and other stakeholders to make themselves aware of the climate issues ahead and the work being done to address them. And we call on policy makers and regulators to give farmers the tools, incentives and other mechanisms that can be used to sustainably boost production, put in place the practices that can help producers adapt to climate challenges, and provide a wide array of ecosystem services, including enhanced wildlife habitat and cleaner water.

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