No more half-measures for the bay

Environmental IssuesEnvironmental PollutionScienceAgricultureChemical IndustryFertilizerU.S. Environmental Protection Agency

After 28 years of formal efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, the single most successful efforts have been in curbing bay-choking nutrient pollutants from sewerage treatment plants, so-called "point sources" from pipes. Maryland has been a leader in these efforts with passage of the Flush Tax in 2004 and its extension in 2012. This will assure that 69 of the largest Maryland plants will be removing both phosphorus and nitrogen to very low levels, approaching the limits of technology. These efforts are paid for by most Marylanders by fees on water and sewer bills.

Maryland is expected to meet strict nutrient reduction targets under the EPA-imposed bay pollution diet (known as the TMDL) by 2017. The state will accomplish much of that effort through these improvements to wastewater plants. Unfortunately, by 2020, the amount of nutrient pollutants will rise again and continue to rise as population increases and more wastewater flows to these plants. This is after the expenditure of more than $1.4 billion on these upgrades.

To significantly reduce nutrient pollution and meet the EPA deadlines, Maryland (and all bay states) have to do much more to reduce the flow of pollutants from nonpoint source runoff, primarily from agriculture and developed urban areas. The substantial fish kills in Baltimore area creeks and rivers reported in the past weeks by The Sun are linked to such nutrient pollution.

These nonpoint sources contribute around 80 percent of the nutrients and all of the human-caused sediment destroying the bay's water quality and living resources. The addition of chicken manure and fertilizer to row crops on the Eastern Shore exacerbates the problem, as many creeks and rivers on the shore are seriously degraded by nutrient and sediment pollutants, the vast majority of which come from farm lands.

The Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay, of which we are all members, found that the voluntary, collaborative approach under the bay program has not worked, and current efforts have been insufficient and are failing. The group found the main barriers to restoration were these nonpoint sources: agricultural pollution and the pollution from new and previously developed areas.

Agriculture is the greatest source of nutrients and sediment pollution to the bay and the most cost-effective pollution source from which to achieve reductions. We write to re-affirm the critical need to better address nonpoint pollution and to abandon the current, mostly voluntary, efforts to curb farm pollution.

The O'Malley Administration has a major opportunity to assert leadership in addressing these farm pollution sources coming from more than a million tons of untreated farm animal manure and millions of pounds of chemical fertilizers applied to farmlands. The pending nutrient management regulations from Maryland's Department of Agriculture are long overdue, and as proposed, they fall well short of what is needed and supported by sound science.

We stand behind the Bay Scientists group's unanimous conclusion that all raw, untreated farm animal manure be handled the same as treated human sludge when placed on farm fields. The Maryland Department of Environment has strictly regulated human sludge since 1985. Why should the land application of untreated animal waste be treated differently than the treated sewage sludge from advanced wastewater treatment plants that destroy pathogens and remove all or a high percentage of contaminants?

Specifically, the proposed regulations from MDA should mirror the MDE requirements for human biosolids and should:

•Prohibit winter application of manure and all nutrients from November 1 through March 1. This requirement should be met beginning on October 1, 2013 and not be postponed until 2016 as proposed by MDA. The prohibition should be from November 1 statewide and not be allowed to slip to November 16 for all western shore farms as proposed by MDA. This two-week period is critical to prevent much more nutrient pollution.

•Require all manure and biosolids to be incorporated into the soil by the end of each working day. Allowing a 48-hour deadline, as proposed by MDA, would allow for the release of much more nutrients.

•Prohibit the application of manure and other phosphorus-containing nutrients to agricultural land where the soils are already phosphorus saturated (as is the case in a large fraction of Maryland's Eastern Shore farmland). The MDA proposed regulations do not change the weak current requirements on this.

•Require the planting of a winter cereal grain cover crop by October 31 when manure or biosolids are applied earlier, which the proposed regulations do not require.

•Establish buffers as exist for sludge applications to protect streams and rivers from runoff, including a 100- foot buffer in the critical area. The proposed MDA changes only require a maximum 35-foot buffer, with significant exceptions, and the proposed changes do not cover ditches and other water bodies covered under the MDE regulations for sludge applications.

Finally, it is critical that MDE be given joint authority with MDA for adequate monitoring and enforcement of the provisions of the nutrient management regulations. Current farming practices are not being properly monitored, and laws are not properly enforced.

The requirements for human sludge have assured that only 25 percent of treated sewage sludge is applied to Maryland agricultural land. Nearly 90 percent of farm animal manure is deposited on farm fields. Sensibly regulating farm pollutants as noted above would reduce nitrogen pollution by more than removing all 425,000 septic systems in Maryland and would remove much more of the polluting phosphorus.

Unlike the Flush Tax, these changes might not cost the taxpayer a dime unless farm operators apply for the many grants available to them. For example, the Maryland Agricultural Cost Share Program has provided about $140 million in taxpayer funded grants to farmers, including up to 87.5 percent of the cost of manure handling structures as well as subsidies to transport manure off the farm where it is produced.

If the O'Malley administration does not stand up to the opposition from the agriculture lobby and the major chicken conglomerates that have successfully blocked the necessary changes to farm practices, efforts to restore the bay could be doomed. Maryland has been and must again assert leadership and properly regulate farm pollutants, particularly from manure. We can turn around the decline of the Chesapeake Bay estuary, but not with half-measures.

Gerald W. Winegrad and Bernie Fowler are former members of the Maryland Senate. Parris Glendening is a former Maryland governor. Walter Boynton is an ecologist with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. Thomas Fisher is a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Tom Horton is an author and former Sun reporter. The views expressed are their own and not necessarily those of the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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