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Better management of manure long overdue

We commend Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to proceed with science-based management requirements to reduce the significant flow of Chesapeake Bay-choking phosphorus from farmland already saturated with an excess of the nutrient. We fully support the proposal and urge the new governor and legislature to implement these cost-effective provisions.

Governor O'Malley's proposal would eventually stop the practice of putting manure from chickens and other animals, as well as phosphorus chemical fertilizers, on soils that already contain too much phosphorus. This is just common sense as much of this excess phosphorus, a major bay pollutant, flows into the bay and causes serious water pollution problems leading to depleted oxygen, brown tides, more toxic organisms and loss of bay grasses, oysters, fish and even crabs.

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As the governor noted, animal waste is "the most significant phosphorus pollution source harming the Chesapeake Bay and rivers on the Eastern Shore." In fact, phosphorus levels in most of the Eastern Shore's rivers have increased or stayed the same since the bay clean-up began more than 30 years ago, largely because of the excess manure from chickens and other sources placed on farm fields.

Bay-wide, agricultural operations are the largest source of bay sediment and nutrients, and farms account for more than 70 percent of the pollution to most Eastern Shore rivers. The hard reality is that the shore's rivers cannot be restored and oysters, crabs and fish cannot thrive again unless pollution from agricultural operations is greatly reduced.

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Much of Eastern Shore soils are already saturated with phosphorus. Joshua McGrath, director of the Laboratory for Agriculture and Environmental Studies at the University of Maryland, and his team surveyed 420 farm fields on the Eastern Shore and found that half of the farms had reached their phosphorus saturation point.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Assessing the State of Chesapeake Bay Agriculture (2005) report found: "About 2/3 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). In 1956 less than 1/3 of the soils tested high in phosphorus."

The governor's proposal was carefully developed by top University of Maryland agricultural scientists over three years. After Maryland's Department of Agriculture implementation proposal in early 2013 was met with objections from the farm community, the regulations were withdrawn, then re-worked and then withdrawn again late in 2013 to languish until now as the farm lobby continued its objections.

Maryland committed to the Environmental Protection Agency under its mandated pollution clean-up plan to adopt such phosphorus limiting methodology back in 2011 to be implemented by 2013. We need to begin now as the phosphorus built up in soils and in our creeks and streams will take many years to decrease. We should not be piling more phosphorus onto phosphorus enriched soils which then release more phosphorus into our waterways.

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Action on the phosphorus limitations was further delayed until completion of an economic impact study. That study was just released. Conducted under Salisbury University's Franklin P. Perdue School of Business, top agricultural specialists question the study's cost estimates. For example, the cost of replacing manure with conventional fertilizer would be less than half of the report's estimate. The key premise that 228,000 more tons of chicken litter would need to be transported from covered farms for 50 miles is not supported by hard data.

The governor supported the 2011 Fertilizer Use Act, which prohibits most lawn/turf fertilizer products from containing phosphorus because most turf soils already have enough phosphorus (agriculture was excluded). Since 1985, Maryland has prohibited the application of clean, well-treated biosolids from sewage treatment plants from being applied to agricultural lands already phosphorus-saturated.

Even accepting the overly high estimated costs of $3.75 million per year for the six-year phase-in, the governor has pledged to subsidize more of this cost on top of the already generous subsidies farmers receive for pollution control. The $3.75 million is not unreasonable given the costs of stormwater remediation (more than $4 billion) or the costs of removing phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage treatment plants under the Flush Tax ($1.4 billion).

While we would have preferred that these changes not be delayed until 2016 and not take six years to cover all farms (2022), the governor's proposal is the best we can expect now and should be adopted.

Why shouldn't agriculture, the largest source of bay pollution and the most cost-effective to reduce, step up and better manage manure and chemical fertilizers to prevent phosphorus pollution? After all, the future of our great Chesapeake Bay and its living resources is at stake.

Parris Glendening is a former two-term Maryland governor who presided over the pfiesteria outbreak and gained passage of a law to curb excessive farm pollutants; his email is pglendening@smartgrowthamerica.org. Joseph Tydings is a former U.S. senator and environmental activist; his email is TydingsJ@dicksteinshapiro.com. Gerald Winegrad is a former state senator who sponsored or managed much of the bay legislation of the 1980s and early 1990s and taught graduate courses on the bay; his email is gwwabc@comcast.net. Tom Horton, a native Eastern Shoreman and award winning environmental writer and author of books on the bay, also contributed to this op-ed.

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