Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99


News Opinion Op-Eds

The biggest problem for the bay: animal waste

Millions of tons of one of theChesapeake Bay'slargest sources of pollution continue to be dumped onto farm lands without proper regulation. Farm animals produce 44 million tons of manure annually in the bay watershed, and most of it is collected and disposed of on farmland — or left where it falls.

This ranks the bay region in the top 10 percent in the nation for manure-related nitrogen runoff, and the problem of proper management of this waste is exacerbated by the fact that three highly concentrated animal feeding operation areas contribute more than 90 percent of the manure. The Delmarva Peninsula, one of these three areas, has some of the greatest concentrations of chicken farms in the country.

According to theU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyBay Program, in 2009 agricultural manure contributed more than 20 percent of all nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorus flowing to the bay system. This exceeds the combined levels of nutrients flowing from all wastewater treatment plants handling the waste from 13 million people and all industrial dischargers. Human waste disposal is strictly regulated, and we have made great strides in meeting requirements at wastewater plants at great public costs exceeding several billion dollars. Unfortunately, the agricultural lobby continues to block efforts to sensibly regulate animal manure.

The costs of this failure are high both in the destruction of bay water quality and the contamination of groundwater: The United States Geological Survey (USGS) concluded that 15 percent of all Delmarva drinking water wells contained nitrates exceeding EPA maximum-contaminant levels. More than 70 percent of all wells tested had nitrate. A USGS study concluded that "Concentrations of nitrate and herbicide concentrations in ground water of the Delmarva Peninsula are among the highest in the Nation." The major source of this excessive nitrogen is chicken and other animal manure, as well as chemical fertilizers.

Soil surveys document that much of the soil on the Delmarva Peninsula already tests "optimum" or higher for phosphorus and therefore should not have any animal manure applied to it. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 2005 reported that about two-thirds of soils in the watershed test "optimum" or higher for phosphorus and should receive no phosphorus fertilizer, and certainly no phosphorus-rich animal waste (poultry litter, municipal sewage sludge or manure).

Many federal and state programs provide significant funding for farms to better manage animal excrement, such as the Maryland Agricultural Cost Share Program, which I helped develop and gain passage of in 1982. This program has provided more than $140 million in taxpayer-funded grants to farmers, including up to 87.5 percent of the cost of manure handling structures as well as subsidies to transport manure off the farm.

Unlike the millions of tons of animal excrement, the land application of treated biosolids from advanced human wastewater treatment systems, called human sludge, has been strictly regulated since the mid-1980s. The Maryland Department of Environment adopted these regulations at the urging of the farm community. Our group of Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay has consistently proposed that the state adopt parallel measures for animal manure applied to land. After all, human sludge is treated in advanced wastewater systems meeting stringent federal and state requirements, while animal excrement is land-applied just as it comes out of the animals.

On Oct. 27, the Maryland Department of Agriculture proposed changes to its nutrient management regulations to deal with the problem — although the changes were far short of what was necessary. When both the farm lobby and the environmental community objected, the regulations were withdrawn and have not been reissued.

The MDA stated that one of the key purposes of the withdrawn regulations was "to achieve consistency in how all nutrient sources are managed and applied to agricultural land. ... That consistency is important if the State of Maryland is to meet its Total Daily Maximum Load requirements, as set forth in EPA's Watershed Implementation Plan for restoring the Chesapeake Bay." The MDA proposals were far short of attaining that consistency with the sludge regulations.

Wastewater treatment plants have met or are nearing their required reductions, while agriculture lags far behind. Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposed doubling of the flush tax to complete the $1.4 billion nutrient removal job at sewerage treatment plants is before the legislature, as is septic tank legislation. These tanks contribute about 6 percent of the nitrogen and close to zero of the phosphorus. The much larger problem of farm animal manure from concentrated feeding operations seems to go unchallenged.

Legislation to deal with this problem is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in Annapolis. The bill would require much better management of animal manure and all biosolids disposed on farm land. We wouldn't let a town of 25,000 people dump human manure untreated on open lands; why should we allow the dumping of the equivalent amount of manure from 150,000 chickens without meaningful regulation?

Properly regulating the disposal of raw animal excrement can be achieved at a very small fraction of the cost of other measures to restore the bay, but unless policymakers aggressively address the problem and overcome "big chicken" and the rest of the farm lobby, the bay will only continue to decline as the manure is piled on.

Gerald Winegrad is a former Maryland state senator who chaired the Subcommittee on the Environment and Chesapeake Bay and chairs the Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay. He teaches Chesapeake Bay and wildlife management courses at the University of Maryland. His email is

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Commercial fishing is regulated

    Commercial fishing is regulated

    Here's some things readers of The Sun should know about commercial fishing ("Rockfish poaching: It's more than just a few fish," Feb. 24). It is against the law to use gill nets in seven states: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida. It is also against...

  • Don't subsidize polluting coal plants

    Don't subsidize polluting coal plants

    Gov. Larry Hogan's backtracking on improving air quality for Marylanders means more unnecessary suffering and premature death for citizens and taxpayers through continued corporate welfare for coal plants ("Hogan issues new smog-fighting rule with 'flexibility' for coal plants," April 18).

  • A Maryland-style Earth Day pledge

    A Maryland-style Earth Day pledge

    Since 1970, Americans have set aside one day per year, April 22, to rally and make noise on behalf of the environment. First inspired by a California oil spill, Earth Day has always been about calling attention to problems and advocating for action. Much of it has been directed at government —...

  • Crabs claw their way back

    Crabs claw their way back

    Good news arrived last month well in advance of Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer and, at least in these parts, its requisite crab feasts. The Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population appears to be on an uptick, having recovered somewhat from a disastrous 2014.

  • Phosphorus rules, finally

    Phosphorus rules, finally

    As we have chided Gov. Martin O'Malley more than once on this page for dragging his feet on regulations intended to reduce the amount of polluting phosphorus pouring into the Chesapeake Bay from farms, it's only fair to herald his decision to move forward with the rules. That he chose to release...

  • Md. farmers are helping protect the bay

    Md. farmers are helping protect the bay

    The farmers in Baltimore County are more than agronomic professionals. Yes, we grow local fruits and vegetables, raise animals and tend to crops that provide the food, fuel and fiber to our community and the world. But did you know we also work every day to protect our waterways, soil and environment?...

  • A farmer's perspective on phosphorous management

    A farmer's perspective on phosphorous management

    From the time I graduated from college and returned to the farm, I have been dealing with government regulations, environmental extremists and animal rights activists.

  • Chesapeake Bay's surprising wins

    Chesapeake Bay's surprising wins

    Here's a sentence that nobody expected to be written this week: The 2015 legislative session turned out pretty well for the Chesapeake Bay and some other environmental causes. How that happened almost defies logic.