Don't Backtrack on the Bay

The following first appeared in the Center Maryland.

RB Rally 1200

A group of more than 200 gathered February 24 in Annapolis at the Rally for Clean Water. Photo by Rob Beach/CBF Staff.

Is there a way for Gov. Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly to find common ground on two controversial environmental issues this year—reducing pollution from excess manure in rural areas, and reducing polluted runoff in urban and suburban parts of the state?

We certainly hope so. Maryland is counting on these two major clean-up measures to continue our progress toward restoring the Chesapeake and our local creeks and rivers.

And while we encourage across-the-aisle problem solving, we at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will fight forcefully to ensure whatever bills emerge during this legislative session, or whatever regulations are put forth by the Hogan Administration, are strong enough to do the job. Watered-down measures won't get us clean water.

Recent assessments of the Bay's health have found significantly less pollution entering the Maryland part of the Bay, thanks in large part to upgrades at the state's major sewage plants. Marylanders paid for those upgrades and the millions of pounds of reduced pollution they brought through the so-called 'flush fee.'

Now we need to upgrade our stormwater systems. In the Greater Baltimore-D.C. area this is the next major source of water pollution in many creeks and rivers. It's weed-killer, pet waste, oil and other contaminants that wash off the landscape after a storm. It's such a problem that the Maryland Department of the Environment warns Marylanders not to swim in any creeks, stream, river or the Bay for 48 hours after a good summer thunderstorm.

And we need farmers on the Eastern Shore and our rural areas to help by applying the correct amount of manure on crop fields. Currently, about 228,000 tons of excess poultry manure are applied, and phosphorus in the manure ends up in nearby creeks and rivers, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Phosphorus is a major cause of the ‘dead zones' of low oxygen that afflict Eastern Shore rivers such as the Choptank each summer, as well as the Bay at large. A tool developed over 10 years by the University of Maryland would enable farmers to determine the correct amount of manure to apply as fertilizer, without hurting the environment.

Governor Hogan pulled regulations proposed by the O'Malley Administration to address the manure crisis, and on Feb. 23 announced alternative regulations. Thankfully, those regulations recognize the necessity of regulating with the tool, but they include loopholes that allow for potentially indefinite delays of implementation. We cannot accept that. We support, instead, a legislative fix to the manure crisis, SB 257 and HB 381. Those cross-filed bills already represent considerable compromise between environmentalists and agricultural interests, allowing a six-year phase-in of the tool.

CBF also opposes any bills that purport to solve the problem of polluted runoff, without requiring local, dedicated funding. Reducing this type of pollution is expensive work. For decades, Maryland's most populated counties and Baltimore City have been required by state law to adequately fund this work, but they haven't. The General Assembly tried to fix that in 2012 by requiring these 10 populated jurisdictions to collect a dedicated fee. We oppose any attempt to repeal that law, or bills that would merely bring us back to a failed past. We've heard the promises before. We need accountability.

We hope in the coming weeks the General Assembly and the Hogan Administration can work together to forge collaborative, but effective solutions to these issues. Our measure of success cannot be simply that we passed legislation or enacted regulation. Our yardstick of success must be clean water.   

The public demands nothing less. Over 200 people took time off from jobs and families recently to attend a Rally for Clean Water 2015 on Lawyer's Mall. Over 20,000 "Don't Backtrack on the Bay" messages have been sent to Governor Hogan and legislators. When county leaders in Harford held a public hearing to consider repealing the county's polluted runoff fee, residents spoke out for the fee, against a repeal. These are just some of the signs of the public's desire for forceful action.

People understand that cleaner water will bring stronger communities and greater economic prosperity, just as a tide uplifts all boats. Requiring farmers to apply only the necessary amount of manure on fields, for instance, can actually improve the farmer's bottom line in the long run. Various technologies and industries are emerging that can use excess manure, or the phosphorus it contains, for alternative uses. The farmer can profit from doing the right thing.

History will record whether this governor and this General Assembly kept us on track to a healthier Chesapeake Bay. To all lawmakers, we say: Don't Backtrack on the Bay.

—Alison Prost, CBF's Maryland Executive Director

Take action now to remind Gov. Hogan and your state legislators that Maryland has committed to make steady, measurable progress on clean water restoration under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.


Why Anglers Should Support Maryland’s Phosphorus Management Tool

MapPhosphorus is at the center of a big fight right now between Governor Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly.

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.

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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