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Governor Hogan, Don't Backtrack on the Chesapeake Bay

The following first appeared in The Hill on Saturday.

Ag runoff_1200
Agricultural runoff is the largest single source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. Photo by Miguel Angel de la Cueva/iLCP.

Hours after delivering his inaugural address, Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) had his staff pull the plug on a common sense, science-based solution to a poultry manure crisis on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where factory chicken farming is big business. 

Agriculture is the largest single source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams, especially fertilizer and manure. As part of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the regional plan to finish restoring the Bay, states in the watershed pledged to reduce agricultural pollution, substantially.

As if those two facts aren't reason enough to accelerate clean-up efforts in agriculture, here's another. It's far less expensive to stop pollution from farms than any other major source, including sewage plants, cars and paved landscapes. Despite this, Hogan has killed proposed regulations that would have cut farm pollution significantly to Maryland creeks and rivers and the Bay.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture estimates that about 228,000 tons of excess chicken manure is being applied annually to the fields of the Eastern Shore. It's not intentional. Farmers use an outdated scientific tool for determining the right amount of manure. So farmers clean out their chicken houses and apply the poultry litter on nearby fields as fertilizer - at legal but excessive levels. The result of the excess manure in Maryland is glaring. Other agricultural states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, have updated their phosphorus limits for manure application.

The list of polluted Eastern Shore waterways includes the Chester, Choptank, Transquaking, Nanticoke, Sassafras, Manokin, Pocomoke and Wicomico rivers. About 80 percent of the phosphorus pollution fouling those rivers comes from agriculture, and much of it is from excess chicken manure applied to fields. When it rains, the phosphorus washes into nearby creeks or leaches out of the fields.
When phosphorus gets in the water, it stimulates massive outbreaks of algae, starting a chain reaction that results in dead zones of low oxygen and a crippled seafood industry. Excess manure also can make Eastern Shore swimming areas unsafe.

Agricultural scientists at the University of Maryland came up with a solution to the manure crisis on the Shore. They developed a Phosphorus Management Tool or PMT that farmers could use to determine the right amount of phosphorus-rich poultry manure to be applied to their crop fields. Former Gov. O'Malley (D) proposed that farmers be required to use the tool if they use chicken manure on their fields. That was the regulation killed by Hogan.

The PMT manure solution would not only clean up Eastern Shore creeks and rivers but it also would serve farmers. Phosphorus is a valuable commodity in many parts of the world. Innovative industries are waiting in the wings to pay farmers for their excess phosphorus. New manure regulations would be phased in over years by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and implementation would be subsidized by the state.

Farmers with excess manure may have to truck some to other areas where fields aren't saturated or to private facilities that turn poultry manure into energy, fertilizer pellets or other products. Some farmers may have to buy commercial fertilizer to replace the nitrogen from the manure or use mixed-species cover crops to add nitrogen from the atmosphere to the soil. Department of Agriculture officials said the agency could help pay for these costs. Or maybe the big poultry companies should help their contract growers comply.

What's not to like? Local creeks and rivers of the Eastern Shore would get cleaner. So would the Chesapeake Bay. Swimming areas that once were off-limits would be safe again. Crabs, fish and oysters would rebound. Watermen would go back to work. Many farmers would sell excess phosphorus to the private market.

Unfortunately, Governor Hogan got bad information on this issue. Lobbyists for Maryland agriculture claimed these regulations would harm the Eastern Shore. They also said the new rule was a last-minute effort, even though it was years in the making, frequently delayed by the same lobbyists. It's the same old story. Industry fights science. Yet time and time again we have seen that reasonable regulations stimulate our economy. Smart companies see them as opportunities, not obstacles.

Governor Hogan, please don't backtrack on the Bay.

—Will Baker, CBF President

Tell Gov. Hogan and your state legislators that we can't backtrack on the Bay! Remind them that Maryland has committed to make steady, measurable progress on clean water restoration under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.


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