Our Bay:
This Week's Take: Bay dying while state placates polluters

For The Capital Published August 02, 2008

J. Henson - The Capital/file
Gerald W. Winegrad, former state senator and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment, is a professor with the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, where he teaches a course on bay restoration. He lives in the Annapolis area.

The Chesapeake Bay is in serious trouble despite 25 years of recovery efforts. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2007 Bay Report calls the bay "dangerously out of balance," noting its "degraded condition is especially staggering." The bay rates a poor 28 or a "D," down from 2006, and far off from the 70 necessary for a saved bay.

The governor has appealed to the Bush administration to declare the blue crab fishery a disaster. This disaster declaration could equally apply to bay oysters, shad, eels, soft clams and sturgeon. Despite the expenditure of $58 million over the past 14 years, the collapsed oyster population declined further preventing the increased cleansing of nutrients and sediments.

We have so poisoned our waters that reports abound of serious infections in humans who come in contact with bay waters in Anne Arundel County and around the state. Rockfish have been turning up with lesions from chronic wasting disease and contain mercury. Catfish in the South River have cancerous lesions and male bass from the Potomac are turning up with female egg sacs. Bay grasses, essential nurseries for crabs, are at only one-third of the acreage agreed upon by the states.

The Chesapeake Bay Program's agreed-upon water quality goals will not be met in 2010, and may be missed by a wide mark.

When the Chesapeake Bay Program began in 1983, if anyone had chosen to frighten the public into action with a doomsday scenario, it would have probably read as described above - but this scenario has become reality.

At the root of the bay's decline is staggering population growth and sprawl development, but equally serious is the failure to aggressively address agricultural pollution with regulatory measures. Agriculture contributes more bay pollutants - nutrients and sediment - than any other source, including 70 percent of the sediment loads in Maryland. Bay restoration is highly dependent on the adoption of effective nutrient management and manure controls on farmland as these measures are the most cost effective. But agriculture lags far behind bay goals and the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that only 30 to 40 percent of bay farmland is operating under necessary best management practices.

The failure to grasp and address the severity of the bay's collapsing ecological resources is manifested for all to see in the state plan to significantly weaken already soft regulatory proposals to control chicken manure runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. An editorial in The Sun on June 3 termed the proposed weakened regulations "Chicken-hearted."

By gutting these regulations and exempting all but a few of the largest chicken operations from strict regulation, the state of Maryland is signaling that it is not willing to stand up to special interests that pollute the bay and is abdicating its leadership responsibilities in bay restoration. Even some major environmental groups are unwilling to aggressively pursue regulatory measures for the bay's No. 1 pollution source, arguing only for more money for farmers, a failed strategy undermining the bay's recovery.

Chicken manure alone contributes about 10 percent of all bay-choking nitrogen pollution in Maryland (6 million pounds). Agricultural animal manure produces more phosphorus and nearly the same amount of nitrogen pollution as all human wastewater from treatment plants.

Maryland, other bay states, and the federal government have given farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly voluntary programs, but the missing element to assure compliance is strong regulations with mandatory implementation of manure management and nutrient management on all farms. All other pollution sources are regulated - why not the largest source of bay pollutants and the most cost effective to reduce?

Part of the answer lies in myths surrounding agriculture. One of those myths is that "farming is far less harmful to water quality than other land uses." Chesapeake Bay Program data clearly document that farmland, on average, delivers much more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment to the bay per acre than developed land. One would be hard pressed to find land uses that pollute more than farmland.

The real disaster here is the failure of Maryland, the other bay states and the federal government to act boldly in taking the necessary steps to restore the bay. 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 a chicken farm with 150,000 chickens without meaningful regulation?

Gerald W. Winegrad, former state senator and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment, is a professor with the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, where he teaches a course on bay restoration. He lives in the Annapolis area.

(Revised August 2008)