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New farm rules curb manure, sludge use to help Bay

State's "balanced" approach still irks farm, municipal groups; environmentalists split

Tim Wheeler

3:30 PM EDT, May 9, 2012

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New farm regulations being aired this week by Maryland officials would ease first-ever limits on how, when and where the state's farmers can spread animal manure and sewage sludge on their fields.

The "nutrient management" rules, which were posted online Wednesday, have been revised by state officials in response to widespread complaints when they were first floated last summer.

A scientist who reviewed them calls them a major step forward in the long-running effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. But farming and local government groups remain concerned about the potential costs, while environmentalists are split on whether they go far enough to curb farm pollution.

The rules would sharply curtail spreading of manure and sludge in fields in fall and winter, when crops are dormant and unable to absorb the nutrients in the fertilizer.  They also would require farmers at other times of the year to work manure and sludge into the soil within 48 hours of spreading it, to reduce the chances it would wash off in a rainstorm.  And no “organic” fertilizer could be put within 10 to 35 feet of rivers, streams or drainage ditches, which also would require most farms to fence livestock away from water.

Farm runoff is a major source of the nutrient pollution that spurs algae blooms and a huge dead zone in the Chesapeake every spring and summer. Animal manure accounts for 15 percent of the nitrogen fouling the bay and 24 percent of the phosphorus, according to Environmental Protection Agency computer modeling.

State officials said in tweaking the rules they tried to strike a balance between reducing pollution and easing the cost and practical challenges for farmers. Most of the restrictions would not take effect until 2016, for instance, to give farmers and local governments time to adapt. 

The rules also would allow farmers to fertilize crops planted in fall if tests show it's needed, but growers would have to use chemical fertilizer, not poultry manure or sludge.  Officials plan to bar fertilizing from Nov. 1 to March 1 for Eastern Shore farms, but gave Western Shore farms an extra two weeks until Nov. 15 to allow for later fall planting schedules there.  And they said farmers could avoid the cost of fencing off their streams if they could come up with other ways to keep animals back.

The changes made in the rules since last year, though, failed to win over farming and local government groups concerned about their cost and practicality, while environmentalists are split over whether they go far enough.

"I’m glad they acknowledge some of the 'one-size-fits-all' strategy is not workable," said Valerie Connelly, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau.  But she said stream fencing requirements and the ban on using poultry manure in the fall and winter would raise costs for farmers.

Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association and also head of the state association of soil conservation districts, said growers are willing to do their part to help restore the bay, but she worried that the proposed rules go further than anything required of farmers in neighboring bay states.

"We're leading the pack, and it makes us less competitive," she said.

The rules also would bar the spreading of treated sewage sludge on fields in fall and winter, which would community sewage treatment plant operators to either build facilities to store it for four months or do something else with it.  The prohibition doesn't take effect until 2016, and for some small communities not until 2020.

Candace Donoho, government relations director for the Maryland Municipal League, said local governments that now spread treated sludge on farm fields face potentially steep costs in four years, though some smaller treatment plants were given until 2020 to comply.

"We’ve got nowhere to store it," she said. "Our options are to haul it out of state or put it in a landfill."

Environmentalists were divided over the revisions.  Gerald Winegrad, a former longtime legislator from Annapolis who organized a group of senior scientists and policymakers to advocate for the bay, said the tweaked rules fall "way short" of what's needed or what had been recommended by the scientists consulted by the state.

Scientists had urged that all manure or sludge be worked into the soil the same day it's spread to minimize air and water pollution, Winegrad pointed out.  But state agriculture officials opted to give farmers up to 48 hours to do so.

"Why are we waiting four years?" Winegrad asked about the delayed implementation of most of the rules. He noted that he had been pressing for regulating farm animal manure since the early 1980s, and said he worried that there would never be another chance to tighten the restrictions. "This is a window and it's going to close," he said.

But Jenn Aiosa, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said most of the changes made in the rules were "in the right direction" to address loopholes and weaknesses environmentalists saw in the initial draft.

"Is it perfect? Absolutely not," she said. "Will there be more the (agricultural) sector needs to do? Certainly. But is this progress? Absolutely."

Russell B. Brinsfield, executive director of the University of Maryland's Center for Agro-Ecology, who was one of three scientists to review the draft rules, said state officials mostly followed their advice

"I think it’s a major step in the right direction for the bay," said Brinsfield, a farmer himself, who noted that there are no mandatory limits on fertilizing timing and methods now. Requiring farmers to work manure or sludge into the soil should reduce nutrient runoff by 50 percent or more, he predicted, even if delayed a day longer than he recommended.

"You can’t win it all," he said. "But all in all, I’m satisfied."

The regulations are slated to be presented soon to the General Assembly's Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee, then published in the Maryland Register sometime in June.  State Sen. Barry Glassman, R-Harford County, said he planned to ask the joint House-Senate panel for a full review, because despite what he called "minor revisions" he feared the rules would contribute to driving livestock farming from the state.

But Brinsfield said he believed the rules are flexible enough to ease the pinch on farmers while also helping the bay.

"We can do both," he said.