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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 them on Friday, the last possible day to assure the rules are finalized before the next governor takes office, does not diminish the importance of the outcome, but it does make the delay all the more mystifying.

Let's set the record straight. The phosphorus regulations have been in the works for several years because studies have shown that there are fields on the Eastern Shore where the ground is so saturated with the nutrient that it can absorb no more. Runoff from such fields leads to increasing levels of phosphorus in local tributaries and the bay where it contributes, along with nitrogen, to the growth of algae blooms and "dead zones" that destroy aquatic plants and animals. And it is a problem that has sadly worsened over time.

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And where does all this phosphorus come from? Mostly from animal waste and specifically from chicken manure. Farmers who raise poultry spread the manure on fields to fertilize grain that, in turn, is used to help feed the chickens. It's an economically viable circle of life, but not an environmentally sustainable one. The regulations don't ban the use of manure, but they would restrict it to land that is not already incapable of absorbing more phosphorus. Poultry farmers would have to find some other use for manure and some other means to fertilize their crops.

For many, that may prove expensive. A study out of Salisbury University estimates the cost to farmers at between $22 million and almost $53 million over six years. That's not an insignificant sum, but it also comes in a year of improved industry profit margins thanks to higher retail prices for meat. More importantly, it pales compared to the value of a clean Chesapeake Bay, which an analysis recently produced for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation pegs at $22 billion. That farmers don't necessarily directly benefit from bay-related economic activity is the real challenge, not their out-of-pocket costs related to the so-called "Phosphorus Management Tool."

Governor-elect Larry Hogan made it clear during the campaign that he did not support the phosphorus rules because of their impact on farmers. Yet in doing so, he ignored the other side of that equation which is the higher cost of doing nothing. One has to wonder how the "business climate" is improved if algae blooms devalue waterfront real estate, stagger the tourism industry or mean the state's signature oysters, rockfish and crabs become a thing of the past. Merely casting the blame for pollution on the Conowingo Dam and out-of-staters isn't going to help Eastern Shore tributaries like the Choptank or Nanticoke rivers.

But we also have to chuckle a bit that in releasing the rules last week, Mr. O'Malley described them as "common sense." We agree with that description, of course, but also believe they were just as common sensical six months ago or even one year ago. That they've been twice delayed by the administration and General Assembly is unfortunate and, in retrospect, whether it was to improve the governor's standing with Iowa farmers, as a personal favor to Perdue Farms, to help Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown get elected or even to boost the chances that House Appropriations Chairman Norman Conway who represents the lower Eastern Shore would be reelected (it didn't — he lost) is probably unimportant.

Now, the focus should be on making the rules work, putting a greater share of the financial burden for them on the multi-billion-dollar poultry producers and not just the mom-and-pop growers and finding opportunities to ease the transition over the next several years. That taxpayers might bear some additional responsibility for them is not unfair — as long as producers are paying their share — given that a cleaner Chesapeake Bay benefits everyone to some degree. Although Mr. Hogan has not supported the phosphorus rules, he campaigned as a pragmatist uninterested in revisiting "settled" issues aside from matters of state spending or taxes. Consider this matter belatedly settled with the public interest winning in the end.

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