Federal report faults farmers' Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts

Seeming to contradict assertions by farmers that they're doing their share to protect the Chesapeake Bay, a new federal report finds major shortcomings in what crop growers are doing across the six-state region to keep from polluting the troubled estuary.

While farmers have made "good progress" in reducing the amount of soil and fertilizer washing off their fields into the bay and its rivers, more pollution controls are needed on about 81 percent of all the croplands, says the draft report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And nearly half of the region's 4.3 million acres of croplands are "critically undertreated" to keep pollutants from running or seeping into nearby ditches and streams.

The 161-page federal report — the most comprehensive analysis of farm conservation practices in the bay region to date — relies on computer modeling and hundreds of soil and other samples taken across the region, plus a survey of farmers. It has not been officially released, but an Internet link to a "review draft" was distributed Tuesday to news media and to environmental groups.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service released a statement late Tuesday saying that the draft report, though still under review, "suggests that conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay are working but "more work remains to be done."

The report comes as debate heats up across the bay region over a pollution "diet" being put together by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will require redoubled efforts to clean up the Chesapeake.

The EPA has said that runoff of animal manure, chemical fertilizer and soil from farm fields is a leading source of the pollution fouling the bay's waters. Nitrogen and phosphorus from a wide variety of sources, including treated sewage, urban and suburban runoff and airborne emissions from power plants and motor vehicles, contribute to massive algae blooms every spring that rob the water of oxygen that fish, crabs and oysters need to survive.

But farmers and agriculture officials across the region are pushing back against the EPA plan, asserting that they've done more than city dwellers and suburbanites to help clean up the bay and that they aren't getting credit for all their conservation efforts.

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl "Buddy" Hance issued a written statement through a spokeswoman saying that state officials had just seen the report and "need to better understand" how federal agriculture scientists reached their conclusions.

Hance noted that the federal assessment did not look specifically at individual states, and he asserted that his agency and Maryland farmers are regional leaders in curbing runoff and in other conservation practices — most of them voluntarily undertaken with federal and state subsidies.

"MDA and Maryland farmers stand ready to do more, as all sectors must, to help restore the Chesapeake Bay," Hance said.

However, Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, e-mailed after reviewing a summary that "the only thing surprising is that it was [USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service] that issued the report."

"Agriculture has been one of the most reticent groups as a whole," added Gerald W. Winegrad, a former Maryland state senator and outspoken critic of farm pollution control efforts. "Whether it's the local farm bureau or national farm bureau, USDA or Maryland Department of Agriculture, to acknowledge there is a substantial problem to the bay from agriculture, and that current efforts aren't nearly enough."

In Maryland, the state Department of Agriculture has reported that 99 percent of all farmers have "nutrient management" plans, as required by law. The plans spell out steps farmers are to take to keep animal manure and chemical fertilizer from washing or seeping off their crop fields. Nearly 70 percent of growers are following those plans completely, state officials have said.

"Either their nutrient management plans are failed, or farmers aren't complying with their nutrient management plans," said Scott Edwards, director of litigation for the Waterkeepers Alliance, a national coalition of water pollution watchdog groups with members throughout the bay region. "Who knows?" he added "It's probably a mixture of both."

The Waterkeepers group has attempted without success to review farmers' nutrient management plans, but their efforts have been thwarted in court by the Farm Bureau, which has won court rulings that under Maryland law the documents may not be made public.

The new report comes a month after another by the U.S. Geological Survey, which found the bay restoration effort to date has made uneven progress and that water quality in the Choptank River, which drains mostly agricultural land, has actually worsened.

"It doesn't surprise me that we need to do more," said Russell B. Brinsfield, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Agro-Ecology and an Eastern Shore farmer himself. Brinsfield suggested that the problem is that state and federal officials aren't requiring enough controls on how and when farmers apply fertilizer to their crops.

"It's not that farmers aren't doing what they're asked," he said. "They just need to be asked to do more."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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