When it rains, water running off farm fields, parking lots, rooftops, and fertilized lawns washes a toxic brew into our streams and the Bay. Many of our state's farms continue to struggle with excess manure and poor soil health. This pollution is increasing while our forests—nature's best pollution filters—continue to decline. All of this adds up to dirty water in our rivers and streams and a massive dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay. With Maryland behind on its commitments to reduce phosphorus pollution, bold action is needed to stop polluted runoff from developed land, better manage farms, and protect our forests.
Implement the Phosphorus Management Tool immediately. Alter Maryland's cost-share programs to increase multi-species cover crops by 100,000 acres and convert 75,000 acres of cropland to grazing over the next five years.
The Phosphorus Management Tool
Manure is a natural fertilizer, but too much manure applied to fields over time creates excess amounts of phosphorus that can't be used by crops. Instead, it saturates the soil and then washes into local creeks and the Bay, where it acts like a fertilizer for algae. Large algal blooms create vast "dead zones" of low oxygen, destroying habitat for fish, crabs, and oysters. This is a problem especially on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where the poultry industry is concentrated and chicken manure is the primary source of fertilizer.
After 10 years of research, scientists at the University of Maryland have developed a method to assess which fields and soils in the state contain the most phosphorus. Officially, this method is called the Phosphorus Management Tool or PMT. The "tool" works this way: Soil tests are conducted on farm fields that consider existing soil phosphorus levels, slopes of the field, the way water travels thru the soils and crop rotations to determine the overall risk of phosphorus loss to waters. If a field has too much phosphorus risk, additional manure applications may be limited in proportion to the phosphorus saturation along with recommendations for other practices to draw down the excess phosphorus.
The PMT is perhaps the most powerful tool we have to drive pollution reductions in the Maryland portion of the Bay. A recent scientific analysis from the Chesapeake Bay Program concluded that trucking excess manure out of the watershed would enable Maryland to reach virtually its entire phosphorus pollution reduction goal in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Even moving the manure to nearby fields that need phosphorus would help significantly. Maryland already has a program to help farmers transport excess manure, but it's underutilized. The tool also could spur promising technologies and market-based solutions for using manure for energy and other uses.
Governor Martin O'Malley promised his administration would, before he leaves in early January 2015, approve regulations to implement the PMT. But the powerful poultry industry on the Eastern Shore is fighting the PMT, saying it will increase costs for farmers. The regulation already is at least two years overdue. Now, an economic study requested by farmers is slowing the process once again. But CBF expects Gov. O'Malley to hold to his promise. Without the tool, the agriculture industry will continue to apply too much phosphorous polluting our local creeks and rivers and the cost of cleaning up this pollution will fall to the general public.
And because agricultural phosphorus is such a big problem, it's virtually certain we will never restore the Bay without significantly reducing agricultural phosphorus pollution using the PMT—regardless of other actions we make take. We need leadership from government and support for farmers to help put the PMT in place and make it work.
Multi-Species Cover Crops
Cover crops provide a range of agricultural and environmental benefits during the cold months when fields are not being used for harvest crops. They are used to manage soil erosion, improve soil quality, prevent compaction, reduce runoff, sequester carbon, absorb excess phosphorus and nitrogen, provide grazing, and more.
Currently, Maryland offers subsidies to farmers mostly for single-species cover crops, which are less effective at preventing runoff pollution and managing soil health than multi-species crops. Increasing state cost-share programs to encourage farmers to plant an additional 100,000 acres in multi-species cover crops will help create naturally healthy soils by reducing the need to obtain approximately 6-10 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer and allowing farmers with high risk of phosphorus runoff to begin reducing the phosphorus saturation on their fields (see above for more on managing phosphorus). These benefits will also save farmers money.
Converting cropland to grazing
Converting cropland to pasture is another agricultural tool that reduces farm pollution. Farmers who allow livestock to feed on pasture grass rather than purchased corn and other feed also benefit from healthier animals and improve their bottom lines. By converting 75,000 acres of cropland into pasture over the next five years, the natural cycling of nutrients will reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading by almost 2.5 million pounds and almost 160,000 pounds, respectively.
Reduce urban and suburban runoff by including measurable pollution limits in MS4 (Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System) permits issued to local governments and provide funding for the implementation and enforcement of these permits.
Since the early 1990s the federal Clean Water Act has required heavily populated localities to reduce the polluted runoff flowing from their streets, lawns, parking lots and other hard surfaces into nearby streams and rivers. In many of these areas this runoff is the main source of water pollution, along with sewage plants. Jurisdictions covered by these stormwater regulations receive permits spelling out targets for reduced runoff. But traditionally those permits have been loosely worded and poorly enforced.
Now the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), with EPA's approval, is issuing new permits to these jurisdictions. However, the permits still lack measurable pollution limits and means to hold the governments accountable for success. This is unacceptable, especially now that taxpayers in many of these jurisdictions are paying stormwater fees to help ensure these same MS4 permits work. Residents deserve to know their money is producing results. MS4 permits that are properly written and strongly enforced can be powerful tools for suburbs and cities to clean up their local waters and contribute their share of the cleanup of the Bay.
Funding for Implementing and Enforcing Permits
Practically speaking, CBF realizes that jurisdictions need funding to implement new stormwater reduction measures and MDE needs more staff to properly enforce the permits. Maryland lawmakers must address these issues with adequate funding.
Make Maryland's "no-net-loss" forest policy meaningful by restructuring agriculture cost-share programs to prioritize forested buffers, strengthen and enforce the Forest Conservation Act to protect and replant more trees, and provide state funding and incentives for local governments to increase tree cover.
Per acre, forested buffers provide more water quality benefits than almost any other action to reduce pollution.
Trees filter out pollutants, reduce erosion, absorb nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil, slow down polluted runoff, and scrub nitrogen from the air. Planting trees, and preventing the clearing of existing trees, is one of the best, simplest, and most cost-effective means of preventing pollution from reaching local streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. When rivers and streams are protected by mature forested buffers, nitrogen pollution is reduced by 60 to 90 percent. Forests and urban trees also provide human health, societal, and economic benefits.
'No Net Loss'
In 2013, the state legislature adopted a "no net loss of forest" policy, aimed at keeping at least 40 percent of the state sheltered by tree canopy by 2030. Maryland also has ambitious goals under the state's Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), which calls for extensive new plantings on private and public lands and in streamside forest buffers. However, slow implementation and poor follow-thru have short-circuited these important goals and weakened efforts. The state continues to lose trees at an alarming rate.
Forest Conservation Act
Better administration and enforcement of Maryland's Forest Conservation Act (FCA) can significantly help the state reach its "no net loss of forest" goal. The FCA is supposed to limit the destruction of forests at new development sites. But a state task force in 2009 found that despite the FCA, forest acres were being cleared at twice the rate they were being replaced. In addition, a large number of loopholes and exemptions meant many acres of trees cleared were not replanted as required. Simply put, the Forest Conservation Act is failing.
The FCA needs to be amended to eliminate loopholes and increase forest retention requirements. Incentives for local governments and private landowners to protect forests are needed; as is sufficient program funding for tree planting, public outreach, oversight and enforcement.
Restructure Agriculture Cost-Sharing Programs
Maryland also has made several commitments to increase the miles of forests that buffer streams and rivers. However, the number of new forest buffers being restored in recent years is at its lowest since 2001. Maryland must make the most of federal funding provided through the current Conservation Reserve and Enhancement Program (CREP) and the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), and must alter state cost-share programs to prioritize forested buffers over other pollution reduction measures like grassy buffers, which require more management (i.e. mowing) and are less cost-effective over time.