Forty years ago, the Chesapeake Bay shifted to an unprecedented degraded state. Population growth in the 1960s and '70s, combined with post-war agricultural practices, led to an excess of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment in the waterways. This over-fertilization clouded the bay's waters with algae, killed vital habitats, created dead zones that deprive creatures of oxygen and smothered the oyster beds that help filter the water.
In Maryland, 36 percent of the nitrogen and 53 percent of phosphorus polluting the bay comes from agriculture, 21 percent of both come from urban and suburban stormwater runoff, and about 23 percent of both come from sewage treatment plants. Agriculture is responsible for more than half the sediment running into state waterways as well.
But while urban and rural sources both contribute to the problem, the rules for cleanup are not the same.
State and federal officials closely regulate pollution from sewage treatment plants, inspect the facilities regularly and fine operators who violate permits. In contrast, they do not generally require farms to install pollution-control techniques and rarely investigate farms to ensure practices are working, even though farmers often receive subsidies for installations. That's because, with the exception of concentrated animal feeding operations, agriculture is largely exempt from the Clean Water Act, the 1972 law credited with cleaning up sewage and industrial wastewater pollution in many of the nation's rivers.
The agriculture exemption is a problem for urban residents, who must pay for ever more expensive treatments to reduce pollutants in drinking water and streams. Increasingly, those concerned about that water turn to the courts. Nearly 15 years ago, the Tulsa Metropolitan Water Authority sued six poultry companies, accusing them of polluting the growing city's water supply through the land-application of chicken manure. The state of Oklahoma, environmental groups in Washington State, and the Des Moines Water Works have all filed similar lawsuits in an effort to fight agriculture pollution.
Poultry is a $565 million industry in Maryland, and a new phosphorus rule will force many farmers to find a place for 200,000 tons of excess manure. Even as the pollution rules tighten, that amount is likely to increase. In Somerset County alone, permits have recently been issued for 50 new chicken houses, some of which can hold close to 200,000 birds per year.
Today the Abell Foundation will released its report, The Chesapeake Bay and Agricultural Pollution: The Problem, Possible Solutions, and the Need for Verification. The writers include former Maryland Department of Environment Secretary Robert Summers, former longtime Sun columnist and current Bay Journal columnist Tom Horton, noted agriculture expert Tom Simpson and myself. Why did a foundation focused on urban poverty take on agriculture pollution? Someone has to pay millions of dollars to remove nitrates and phosphorus from water. Under the Chesapeake Bay's "Total Maximum Daily Load," or pollution diet, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that it will return to the regulated (urban) pollution sources for more reductions if it can't wring those reductions out of the agricultural sector. That means Baltimoreans may have to pay even more to treat sewage and stormwater, while many farmers continue to put excessive amounts of manure on their crop and pasture land.
Much of our pollution comes from poultry waste, a reusable resource; we just have to figure out how, and where, to reuse it. First, we must learn the bay cleanup's history so we don't repeat past mistakes. Second, we can look to other states for solutions. And finally, we should establish a strong, independent inspection and verification process to ensure that all polluters are putting practices in place to control their pollution, and that those practices are working and will continue to work in the future. Without understanding where we've been, learning from those who've gone before us and verifying what we do going forward, we will just be treading water or, even worse, backsliding.
Rona Kobell is a Bay Journal staff writer and the former Chesapeake Bay writer for The Sun. For five years, she co-produced and co-hosted Midday on the Bay with Dan Rodricks on WYPR.