The Governor, his administration, the farm community, the members of the House and Senate, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation all acknowledge the solid scientific evidence that phosphorus runoff pollution from spreading manure on farm fields is a problem for the Chesapeake. Despite strong efforts by sewage treatment plant upgrades and many farmers, phosphorus pollution is not yet declining in Maryland’s Eastern Shore rivers. In fact, it is actually increasing in the Choptank, causing more damage to this important waterway.
The issue is the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), developed over 10 years by Bay and agriculture scientists from the University of Maryland to help farmers precisely manage the way they fertilize their crop fields. The farm community participated actively in the development of this innovative tool. Regulations putting it to work would have gone into effect at the beginning of February.
But Gov. Hogan, at the request of the Maryland Farm Bureau and other organizations, pulled the plug on the PMT shortly after his inauguration, saying he wanted to “hit the pause button” to seek more input from farmers. Shortly after, concerned members of the General Assembly filed House and Senate bills to convert the PMT regulations into legislation. Just before House and Senate hearings on the PMT bills, Hogan issued his own Maryland Agricultural Phosphorus Initiative 2015.
It is good that he acted, but his Phosphorus Initiative offers loopholes and even more delay. Here is what the Baltimore Sun had to say in its editorial response, "Stand Firm on Phosphorus": "the new rules offer too many off-ramps to divert the cause, particularly a provision that gives the state agriculture department broad authority to postpone their implementation as officials see fit." It's high time we deal directly with the problem of phosphorus runoff pollution in our rivers and Bay. Anglers can help a lot by asking their elected officials to get on with the job.
But isn't this whole PMT campaign singling out family farms unfairly?
No. Many Chesapeake watershed farmers are making heroic efforts to reduce their impacts on streams, rivers, and the Bay. Just click here to read about the good work that some farmers are doing for their farms and local waterways. Agriculture, if managed well, reduces runoff pollution at very low cost. The problem is that agriculture covers 25 percent of the land in the watershed or 8.5 million acres (note map above). Look especially at the proportion of Maryland's Eastern Shore that is growing crops and poultry. That huge acreage is why agriculture keeps coming up as the leading cause of the Chesapeake's ills. Our Bay and its rivers and streams need nearly ALL of the watershed’s 87,000 farmers to exercise Conservation Best Management Practices.
We depend on Maryland farms for the food that fuels our bodies every day. But, note the comparative cost figures in the Sun editorial: "...the financial cost [of the PMT] is somewhere in the neighborhood of $22.5 million . . . Eastern Shore poultry producers spend more on advertising. Maryland's annual seafood catch is worth more than that despite its pollution-related declines of the last several decades. And Maryland's boating industry alone is worth about 100 times that. So exactly who should be doing the compromising?"
Now look at The Economic Benefits of Cleaning Up the Chesapeake. The Bay watershed is a tremendous economic asset, but it's under severe pressure from us humans and our needs for food, transportation, and housing. Maryland cannot afford an either/or choice between vibrant agriculture and a healthy Chesapeake. We must find ways to have both. Farmers who have already installed Conservation Best Management Practices are showing the way, in teamwork with state and federal agencies, agricultural and Bay scientists, and businesses looking at new ways to use excess phosphorus.
There is real win/win opportunity here, but getting there will grow more difficult and expensive the longer we wait. It's time for everyone who has a stake in a healthy Bay, especially anglers and seafood harvesters, to urge Gov. Hogan and the General Assembly to reach agreement on this "PMT Pause" and then move quickly to put it to work.
Every angler and waterman from the Sassafras to the Pocomoke, and all of the rest of us who love those waters, must tell our elected officials that we want SOLUTIONS to the problem of farmland soils oversaturated with phosphorus. Click here to take action now!
Remember: The Chesapeake’s fish and crabs need clean water. And they are essential to prosperous communities in Maryland. We need BOTH healthy waterways and strong agriculture. It’s time to get to work and figure out how!
—John Page Williams, CBF’s Senior Naturalist