Bay is quietly dying as polluters pile on the manure

By Gerald W Winegrad
Bay Journal Forum, Sept 2008

The Chesapeake Bay is in serious trouble as 25 years of recovery efforts under the Bay Program are lagging. Agreed-upon water quality goals will not be met in 2001, and may be missed by a wide mark.

Maryland and Virginia's governors have recently appealed to the Bush administration to have the blue crab fishery declared a disaster. This disaster declaration could equally apply to Bay oysters, shad, eels, soft clams and sturgeon. All of these are collapsed fisheries resulting from pollution and overharvesting. Menhaden and yellow perch in the Bay are also in trouble.

Despite the expenditure of $58 million over the last 14 years, the collapsed oyster population declined further. Not only was the oyster the most important economic resource harvested from the Bay, but it is also an extremely important pollution filter, cleansing the Bay's waters of excess nutrients and settling sediments.

Our famous Chesapeake Bay blue crab, an icon of the land of pleasant living, is in trouble, and this threatens our remaining surviving full-time watermen. Their way of life is dying out in the Bay as proud Smith Islanders become prison guards, leaving their island homes forever.

We have so poisoned our waters that reports abound of serious infections in humans who come in contact with Bay waters. These reports are widespread-from the Severn to the Nanticoke rivers, and beyond.

Rockfish, one of the few success stories in the recovery of living resources, have been turning up with lesions from a chronic wasting disease, which is transmittable to humans. Rockfish have high levels of mercury and the public is advised to limit the consumption of Maryland's state fish.

Catfish in the South River have cancerous lesions and male bass from the Potomac are turning up with female egg sacs.

There are 24 fish consumption advisories for the Bay, with warnings to limit one's consumption of certain fish and shellfish because of toxic chemicals.

Despite decades of efforts, Bay grasses are at only one-third of the acreage agreed upon by the states. These grasses, vital for a healthy Bay, remain at low levels because of the two major pollutants, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment. Part of the reason for the crab decline is the failure to restore Bay grasses, which juvenile crabs use as a nursery.

When the Bay Program began with the adoption of the first Bay Agreement 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: Just how much worse does this horrible situation have to become before policy makers take the bold but necessary actions to reverse the decline of the Bay? Half-measures and "save the Bay" palliatives won't do.

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

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. Maryland has always been the leader in these efforts, but something in the political climate has changed. Even the leading environmental groups are unwilling to aggressively address regulatory measures for the Bay's No. 1 pollution source-agriculture-arguing only for more money for farmers.

Bay Program data confirm that chicken manure 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 sewerage treatment plants. Farm animals produce 44 million tons of manure annually in the Bay watershed, which ranks in the top 10 percent in the nation for manure-related nitrogen runoff.

Agriculture contributes more Bay pollutants-nutrients and sediment-than any other single source, including 70 percent of the sediment loads in Maryland. The Bay's restoration is highly dependent on the adoption of manure controls and nutrient management on the vast majority of farmland as these measures are the most cost-effective. But agriculture lags behind and the EPA suggests that only 30-40 percent of Bay farmland is operating under sound nutrient management and other best management practices.

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. Without such regulation, the Bay is doomed.

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 is in the myths surrounding agriculture. The Sun editorial perpetuated one of those myths: "Generally, farming is far less harmful to water quality than most land uses." EPA 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.

Next is the myth that once agricultural production ends on farmland, the land always reverts to development. The 2006 State of the Chesapeake Forests report documents the fallacy in this myth: From 1982 to 1997, there was a net increase of 676,000 acres in forest land in the Bay region from farmlands reverting to forests.

There is nothing wrong with converting active farmland, with tons of chicken manure dumped on it, back to forests or even wetlands. Instead, we pay farmers million of dollars to keep their land in farm production without making sure those farms are not polluting the Bay.

For too long, agriculture has enjoyed a free ride and has escaped any meaningful regulation while the Bay system and its fisheries and other living resources collapse. An Oct. 14, 2007 Sun article on chicken manure noted "farmers who raise chickens in Maryland-as well as grain and vegetable growers who use poultry litter as fertilizer-receive minimal, if any, oversight from the state."

Another Sun editorial of Oct. 18, "No More Free Pass," offered this: "For too long, the poultry industry in this state has wielded economic and political clout to escape responsibility for its primary role in the slow, steady poisoning of the Chesapeake Bay. Nitrogen from the waste still flows into the Bay and its tributaries at twice the rate allowed by state standards.

"No longer should the poultry industry, because it provides so many jobs in a relatively poor corner of the state, get a pass on Bay pollution. It has severely damaged Maryland's seafood industry and threatens the recreational boating and water sports industries as well. What about those jobs?"

The proposed regulations are so weakened that they would continue this "free pass" for agriculture and lead to a further collapsing Bay system.

The real disaster here is the failure of Maryland and the other Bay states as well as the federal government to act boldly in taking the necessary steps to restore the Bay and prevent further collapses in its living resource.

Yes, sprawl development must be aggressively addressed at the state level, but of equal importance is the necessity to comprehensively regulate the runoff of farm manure, chemical fertilizers and sediment.

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 150,000 chickens without meaningful regulation?

Gerald W. Winegrad is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy where he teaches graduate courses on Chesapeake Bay restoration and wildlife management. He served 16 years in the Maryland legislature where he was responsible for many Bay initiatives, including the state's phosphate detergent ban.

(Revised August 2008)