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Next governor must tackle agricultural pollution [Commentary]

It's not easy telling the next governor of Maryland that he or she needs to start thinking right now about manure, but the winner of this fall's election won't have any time to waste.

Toxic algal blooms and intersex fish are two examples of the threat the agriculture industry poses. We like to think of our farms as open space and natural operations that provide the food we need. But without proper pollution controls, not all 21st century farms are environmentally benign. Unfortunately, that threat is well documented in Maryland.

The state's farms are the biggest single source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. That's a fact. And as a result we continue to violate clean water standards set by the federal Clean Water Act. The next governor will have two short years to drastically curtail the pollution flowing into the bay or face federal consequences.

Because we are not meeting clean water standards, the Clean Water Act has driven the creation of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) defines how much pollution can be flushed into our bay. By 2017, Maryland must take all necessary steps to achieve 60 percent of the pollution reduction established by the TMDL. The deadline for 100 percent compliance is 2025.

None of this has figured much in the campaign debate among the 11 men and women vying for either the Democratic or Republican gubernatorial nominations on June 24. But whoever wins their party's nomination and then the general election in November will have to move quickly — taking on some entrenched interests that the current administration has not touched, leaving unfinished business for the next governor.

Our next state leader should begin preparing now.

We write on behalf of 21 diverse organizations — ranging from the League of Women Voters of Maryland and the Maryland Pesticide Network to Environment Maryland and the West/Rhode Riverkeeper — to present a roadmap for action. Three new directions must be charted by the next governor if we are to meet our legal mandate: healthy farms and healthy waters, transparent government and informed citizens and progressive leaders in state government.

As we look toward 2017 and the future health of Maryland waters, we also must look at the future health of Maryland farms. It's past time for the state to adopt the Phosphorus Management Tool. Scientists and agricultural experts now understand that the historic application of manure to farm fields has led to a buildup of phosphorus, often to excessive and damaging levels, contaminating nearby surface and ground waters. The tool will restrict the use of manure on fields to stop the build-up of phosphorus.

While the idea is controversial in some circles, Maryland must hold agricultural corporations accountable for the pollution their poultry generates. The company that owns the poultry should be responsible for its waste. Currently, they hold no responsibility for their pollution. The state also must do a better job of monitoring Maryland's waters for other pollutants like pesticides, mercury and hydrocarbon. Intersex fish — male fish carrying eggs like a female fish — are just one example of what this pollution does to our environment. Toxic contaminants that accumulate in fish and are ingested by humans can have a devastating impact on our health, resulting in fish consumption advisories.

When it comes to transparent government, the next governor needs to demand more information from farmers and overhaul Maryland's inadequate system of public access to the information they and other sources of pollution provide. Our state lacks an open data system to access state agency records and imposes unreasonable fees on citizens requesting information.

And finally, while the governor is our No. 1 leader, Maryland will not march toward clean water health and compliance without the right leadership at the Departments of Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources. The leaders of these agencies must be highly knowledgeable individuals who are willing to act with courage and conviction to drive change.

Maryland is known as the Old Line State, but it's also known as the Chesapeake Bay State, and there is no question that Maryland agriculture is affecting that namesake. Absent greater reductions in pollution from agriculture, Maryland will not meet its 2017 goals. But it's not just a legal issue that confronts our next governor; it's a question of protecting the health of his or her electorate.

Bob Gallagher (riverkeeper113@verizon.net) is the founder and chairman of the Board of Directors of West/Rhode Riverkeeper. Joanna Diamond (joanna@environmentmaryland.org) is the director of Environment Maryland. They are co-chairs of the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition, which is working to improve Maryland waterways and protect public health by reducing pollution, and increasing transparency and accountability, from agriculture and other associated sources of water degradation.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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