Heading into the 2020 General Assembly session, Maryland is at a key point in its work to meet the 2025 pollution-reduction goals spelled out in the state's Clean Water Blueprint.
Already, the state has made significant gains in reducing Chesapeake Bay pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen by upgrading wastewater treatment plants and implementing a popular annual cover crop subsidy program for farmers. Those investments are a key reason why the state is on track to meet the 2025 goals.
However, the state has reached a turning point where most of its wastewater plants have been upgraded and most farmers use cover crops to reduce polluted runoff from leaving their fields. This means state officials will need to shift their focus to different practices to reduce pollution from the state's farms, cities, and towns.
To help make this transition, CBF is putting an emphasis in this year's General Assembly session on legislation to promote investments in natural filters like trees and oysters. On the land, we hope to incentivize farmers to add streamside forest buffers, restore wetlands, and convert row crop fields to permanent pasture.
In the water, we will continue our strong support for oyster restoration efforts. Adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, a process that removes algae and clarifies the water. However, oysters have been struggling in Maryland. Overfishing, pollution, and disease have led to Maryland's oyster population declining from about 600 million oysters in 1999 to about 300 million in 2018, according to Maryland's oyster stock assessment.
Promoting Natural Filters on Maryland Farms
In the 2020 General Assembly session, we're advocating for legislation to enhance a voluntary program that funds conservation practices on Maryland farms. We aim to ensure the program appropriately supports farmers interested in establishing more permanent conservation practices such as:
- riparian buffers,
- stream exclusion,
- wetland restoration,
- mixed-seed cover crops, and
- conversion of cropland to pasture.
Increased adoption of these practices by farmers may be critical to Maryland's ability to achieve its required reductions in total maximum daily load of pollution in line with the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint.
Maryland has made significant progress in reducing pollution loads from agriculture through an annual investment of close to $19 million to assist roughly 1,400 farmers plant cover crops on their fields. In order for Maryland to reach its 2025 pollution-reduction goals and maintain those reductions in the face of climate change, the state must now increase investment in more permanent and alternative conservation practices on farmland such as planting forest and grass buffers between crops and waterways, converting croplands to pasture, and keeping farm animals from polluting streams.
Research by the Chesapeake Bay Program has found that these practices are among the most effective methods of reductions in the three keystone pollutants to the Bay: nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Increased adoption of these practices by farmers is especially important as the state lags on its nitrogen reduction goal.
The Maryland Agricultural Water-Quality Cost Share program has included these practices as eligible for funding for years. But the practices are not prioritized for funding, and, in several cases, their lack of relative cost-share may discourage their use. We advocate for legislation to put these highly effective conservation practices on equal footing with other positive practices by prioritizing them among practices eligible for funding and by balancing the formulas used to determine funding across all practices.
Streamside buffers, wetland restoration, and rotational grazing has additional benefits beyond nitrogen reduction. These regenerative agriculture practices build soil health, helping build resiliency into farmlands as intensifying weather patterns due to climate change—especially heavy rain events and periods of drought—add to the challenges Maryland farmers face. In addition to the environmental benefits of livestock fed on grass pastures, farmers also benefit from being able to sell their meat, milk, and cheese at a premium.
Mixed-seed cover crops provide biodiversity of vegetation that reduces the need for additional nitrogen application in the next growing season. Excluding livestock from polluting streams reduces the amount of nitrogen that flows into the Bay, and it also helps restore water quality in the stream itself, allowing restoration of wildlife habitat, and increasing the potential enjoyment of recreational fishing. Putting an emphasis on more permanent conservation practices on farmland will cement the nitrogen reductions the state has worked hard to achieve through expensive wastewater plant upgrades and annual farm subsidies.
Restoring and Protecting Maryland's Oysters
The legislature passed two important oyster bills during the 2019 session—one to permanently protect the state's five oyster restoration sanctuaries and another that would have created a consensus-based process to recommend a new oyster fishery management plan. Both were vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. Legislators overrode the governor's veto of the sanctuary bill but were not able to override the veto of the fishery management plan bill before the session concluded.
This year, we are urging legislators to override that veto during the opening days of the session in January. Doing so will create a process led by professional mediators that will bring together watermen, seafood sellers, scientists, and environmental advocates to recommend changes in fishing regulations to ensure the oyster population is sustainable. Historically we've seen that minor changes to the oyster fishery regulations made by the state's Department of Natural Resources have failed to stop the systemic decline of the population. The consensus-based approach will ideally create buy-in from the diverse groups in the debate as well as ensure oysters are protected for their ecological value to the Chesapeake Bay.
We will also be looking for opportunities to ensure the Bay's oyster population is protected as the process for developing a revised fisheries management plan is underway.
In the 2020 session, CBF will also be supporting bills to ban the harmful pesticide chlorpyrifos, limit the distribution of single-use plastic bags, and remove trash incineration from the state's renewable portfolio standard.