Bad News for the Bay

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Yesterday newly inaugurated Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, decided to reverse regulation on phosphorus management that former Governor Martin O’Malley proposed late last year. The regulation was aimed at reducing agricultural runoff and phosphorus pollution in the Chesapeake Bay from farming operations that use chicken litter as fertilizer. The Phosphorus Management Tool, part of the proposed regulation which was set to be published tomorrow, January 23, was developed by scientists to enforce new standards on farmers in the region. The Phosphorus Management Tool, when implemented, was supposed to be used for Maryland farmers to determine how much fertilizer their croplands need, prevent the over-application of chicken litter, and in turn, prevent excessive levels of phosphorus runoff into the Bay and its tributaries.

While chicken litter is a useful and easily available form of fertilizer in the region (due to the high number of chicken feeding operations in the state), litter is often over-applied to croplands. Rain and snowmelt carry the excess nutrients in the soil, high in phosphorus, to the Chesapeake Bay. Phosphorus pollution contributes to hypoxia, or dead zones within the Bay, making it difficult for aquatic organisms to live and reproduce in affected regions of the estuary. In worst-case scenarios, dead zones can result in fish kills and act as biological stressors for shellfish species. Phosphorus pollution can also contribute to algal blooms, which block sunlight to underwater grasses, an important source of food and habitat for species in the watershed, especially the Chesapeake blue crab – a species that has had an incredible population decline in recent years due to habitat loss, overfishing, and water quality issues.

Governor Hogan cited economic reasons for overturning the proposed phosphorus regulation, claiming the economic burden for regional farmers would be too great were farmers forced to comply with new management tools. However, the Maryland Department of Agriculture had proposed subsidy programs for manure transport, which would have reduced this burden. There is also a large economic loss which needs to be considered for the Chesapeake region when cleanup programs are not implemented. Other groups, such as Chesapeake watermen, and recreational business, for example, suffer from a polluted Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has estimated that watershed states stand to gain $20 billion should the Bay reach cleanup goals proposed for 2025. The new phosphorus regulation could have helped Maryland and other Bay states reach these ecological and economic goals. Reversing the regulation reverses this progress.

Furthermore, Maryland has an obligation to reduce pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, as part of its Watershed Implementation Plan, an agreement and plan of action Maryland entered into with the EPA, to restore the health of the Bay. Targeting phosphorus pollution from agricultural runoff would show that Maryland’s leaders were aware of their contribution to the Bay nutrient load, and committed to improving water quality in the estuary.

I am not sure what will become of this regulation going forward, but I am hopeful that the issue will continue to be brought up, and will eventually lead to the implementation of the Phosphorus Management Tool or a similar management strategy in the near future. I believe this tool is crucial to reducing phosphorus loads to the Bay, improving water quality, raising population numbers for at-risk aquatic organisms in the watershed, and raising standards of living for individuals who rely on the Bay for their livelihoods.

Please see DelmarvaNow for more information on Hogan’s action: http://www.delmarvanow.com/story/news/local/maryland/2015/01/21/hogan-halts-poultry-regs/22127497/.

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