(Left) One of several large chicken operations on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (Google Earth) (Right) An example of a common industrial chicken operation. (iStock)
Reducing Phosphorus Pollution in Maryland
Phosphorus is one of the three major pollutants affecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Excess phosphorus contributes to dead zones—areas with low levels of oxygen where marine life cannot live—in creeks, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.
One of the largest sources of phosphorus is manure. In fact, farm land where manure is applied as fertilizer has, on average, three times more phosphorus runoff than land not receiving manure.
The latest University of Maryland estimates show that nearly half of Maryland farm fields are polluting rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay due to excessive levels of phosphorus from manure. This problem is especially troubling on the Eastern Shore, where the Maryland Department of the Environment estimates that farmers apply 228,000 tons of excess poultry manure a year on Eastern Shore farm fields. The Eastern Shore's Choptank River is the only major river in Maryland where phosphorus pollution is on the rise.
As part of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, Maryland is required to reduce phosphorus pollution 48 percent by 2025. The state's Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) includes methods for achieving that goal. One of the most important methods is reducing the amount of phosphorous applied to fields that have the highest risk of phosphorus runoff, which pollutes local waters, especially on the Eastern Shore. Enter the Phosphorus Management Tool, a science-based method of identifying the fields that contain the most phosphorous and have the highest risk of phosphorus runoff.
How the Phosphorus Management Tool Works
Phosphorus, like nitrogen and other nutrients, is vital to crops. However, like nitrogen, when there is more phosphorus in the soil than the crops can take up, the excess runs off the field and into nearby streams. Soil can be tested to determine how much phosphorus it contains, and is then classified as having "low," "medium," "optimum," or "excessive" amounts. In addition to how much excess phosphorus is in the soil, the Phosphorus Management Tool takes into consideration the slope of the land, type of soil, and proximity of waters—all factors that affect the likelihood that excess phosphorus will find its way into local waterways.
New Maryland state regulations use the Phosphorus Management Tool to identify hot spots where the soil is saturated with phosphorus and where other factors signify a high risk of runoff. Future applications of manure would be limited in such areas and farmers directed to implement techniques to remove some of the excess.
The Phosphorus Management Tool reflects more than 10 years of research conducted by University of Maryland scientists in collaboration with regional and national experts. Revising and updating the tool is an element of Maryland's Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), the federally mandated document created by the state to outline specific steps it will take to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Implementation is Long Overdue
These regulations have been in the works for years, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture already delayed implementation twice in response to concerns by some farmers who may be affected. The most recent version of the draft regulations were issued in the Maryland Register on December 1, 2014. This version reflects a number of changes requested by farmers, including a six-year, extended phase-in period to allow farmers more time to transition to practices that reduce pollution.
Still, the Farm Bureau, Perdue and other chicken growers, and some farmers are continuing to fight implementation of these important regulations addressing a major source of phosphorus pollution.
Through our long years of cooperative problem solving with farmers, our devotion to supporting scientifically sound policy changes, and our own experience running Clagett Farm, CBF understands the trepidation some farmers feel toward the new regulations.
Some individual farmers may shoulder an additional financial burden under the PMT, which is why we have supported cost share programs to mitigate the potential of increasing costs to affected farmers. We continue to support these programs, and believe that, in addition, big agricultural corporations should help pay for the cost of cleaning up the manure their chickens produce.
At the same time, not all agricultural producers will be negatively impacted by the new PMT regulations, and in fact, some will benefit from greater availability of manure fertilizer that they can readily use on fields that need additional phosphorus. Costs and benefits will shift geographically based on the location of fields that can use additional phosphorus. A recent economic analysis on the regulations affirms that the PMT will not economically ruin the agricultural industry on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The Economics of the PMT
Reducing pollution from agriculture is one of the most cost-effective ways—acre for acre, and pound for pound—to restore local water quality and the Bay. It's a much better "bang for the buck" than other, more costly solutions like wastewater treatment plant upgrades, which have already been done, supported by tax dollars.
Practices like the PMT that reduce pollution are also estimated to provide additional economic benefits in Maryland of $4.6 billion per year if the Clean Water Blueprint is fully implemented. Thanks to improvements in soil health and productivity, benefits from Maryland's agricultural lands will increase by more than $73 million per year.
Additionally, the PMT presents an opportunity for economic growth and innovation through the potential for new technologies to process, transport, and export excess phosphorus once the new regulation is implemented. While restoring water quality, these new regulations also provide a reliable supply of phosphorus for new companies seeking to develop methods to make phosphorus more readily available and transportable to American and international markets where phosphorus is a limited commodity.
Likewise, companies have already successfully tested new technologies to convert manure into energy, and simply lack the positive economic pressure the PMT regulation would provide to invest in scaling up pilot projects to commercial scale—thus making these technologies into a cost-effective solution for our current manure crisis.
We all need to do our part to restore clean water across Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. If we don't begin to put these changes to agricultural practices into action—practices that we know cause a significant amount of pollution to local streams, groundwater, and the Bay—we will fail to meet the goals of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
Without implementation of the PMT, Eastern Shore creeks and rivers will remain polluted, unsafe for swimming and fishing. Crabs, oysters and other marine life will continue to suffer from the pollution.