Optimism might seem out of place after the Waterkeeper Alliance's bitter loss in a recent lawsuit to hold Perdue Farms and its grower Alan Hudson responsible for polluting waterways with poultry manure. But it's possible to at least be hopeful of solutions, perhaps within the current decade, to this widespread bay pollution.
Reasons for hope were less likely when the lawsuit was filed three years ago. Witness a survey recently presented by University of Maryland ag scientist Kenneth Staver. He looked for progress between 1999 and 2010 in reducing polluting phosphorus on Eastern Shore farm fields fertilized with poultry manure.
Despite a decade of efforts to tackle the problem — some real, some smoke and mirrors — all Mr. Staver could find was that the excessive levels of phosphorus were getting worse at a slower rate.
He found that many of the fields in the Pocomoke River sub-watershed of Green Run could grow crops for years to decades without adding any more phosphorus to fertilize them.
And that's the rub with manure, one of several reasons why it's a lousy fertilizer in a watershed awash in too many nutrients from sources ranging from farms and human sewage to lawns and pets and the dirty air that falls everywhere.
When a farmer puts enough manure down to give crops the nitrogen they need to deliver a profitable yield, he automatically puts down more phosphorus than they need. That's just the way manure is.
And despite improvements to federal and state clean water requirements governing agriculture, the industry still has major exemptions and a serious lack of accountability.
Thus, it's no surprise that in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, animal manures, predominantly from poultry and dairy, produce more than a third of the phosphorus entering the bay — the sewage from 17 million humans, in comparison is less than a fifth.
The Waterkeepers' lawsuit is over — a federal judge ruled decisively that they failed to prove their case — but the problem remains. So where might we find hope?
Look to Pennsylvania, said Ann Swanson, director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents legislatures of bay watershed states.
She recently toured a laying hen complex near Gettysburg, where an adjacent gasification plant turns 240 tons a day of manure into 35 tons of ash that is a highly valued fertilizer and feed additive.
The plant also sends 3.2 megawatts of power to the poultry complex and the electrical grid. Profit comes from selling energy, selling ash and state credits for reducing nutrients and greenhouse gases. Nothing goes on the land or in the bay.
Nothing is perfect, but the facility, operated by Maryland-based EnergyWorks, comes close to an environmental-agricultural trifecta: renewable energy, farm profitability and cleaner water.
Turning manure into energy capitalizes on the dilemma facing today's poultry and dairy industry. Their concentration of so many animals into small regions like Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, or Delaware's Sussex county, makes it hard to appropriately use all of the manure on fields (hauling it far is expensive).
This same concentration is good, though, when constructing a facility to collect and burn manure.
Maryland recently announced plans to build what will be the largest manure to energy facility in the watershed — a 10 megawatt power plant that can handle more than 100,000 tons of chicken litter. That is close to 15 percent of all the litter produced on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The state will buy all of the energy for 15 years, at a price not much higher than the current cost of conventional energy, said Steve Carpenter, CEO and president of Green Planet Power, the Auburn, Calif., company chosen to build the plant.
Across the watershed, a number of smaller, on-farm processes to turn manure into fuel or energy are being evaluated.
The technologies are there. What is not there is the supply of manure. Not that there isn't plenty; but in Maryland and other states, laws currently allow farmers to spread it as if water quality didn't matter.
Legal and cheap. Who wouldn't use it?
Forthcoming state guidelines and regulations on phosphorus in farms soils are in the works and may change how farmers use manure over several years.
"I think it will put most of the soils on large sections of the Lower Shore in a high phosphorus category that will make it hard to spread much manure," said Steve Schwalb, Perdue's vice president of environmental sustainability.
One can only hope he is correct. "There has to be a way for us to continue doing what we're doing here and have clean water," Mr. Schwalb said.
Tom Horton covered the bay for 33 years for The Baltimore Sun and is the author of six books about the Chesapeake. This article is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun