Each year, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the University of Michigan, and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association collaborates on models predicting the size of the dead zone that will be found in the main stem of Bay over the summer months. Using USGS data on nutrient and sediment loads entering the Bay from the first half of this year, the models can pretty accurately predict how big this dead zone will be. This year’s prediction: the dead zone will be “slightly smaller-than-average.”
Please see the Chesapeake Bay Program for more information.
The Potomac Conservancy has released their biennial report on the Potomac River, the second largest river draining into the Chesapeake Bay. The health of the Potomac River, due to its large area and population size within watershed boundaries, is very important to the health of the Bay. The Potomac Conservancy has issued the River a grade of B- in terms of overall health. Rising from a D to a C to a B- over the past ten years, the state of the Potomac River is improving. However, a number of different areas need to be addressed to continue to improve water quality in the Potomac and the Chesapeake.
Figures 1, 2, and 3 show changes to nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads in the Potomac from 1985 to 2014. Over this time period, there have been load reductions from these three major sources of pollution.
The improvements in overall health of the Potomac River are due in large part to reduced sediment and nutrient loads from agricultural activity and wastewater treatment plants.
Wastewater treatment facilities have undergone a number of upgrades to ensure that water discharged from facilities contains smaller concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. With higher standards now required by the EPA, upgrades to many wastewater treatment facilities in the watershed have contributed to cleaner waters in the Potomac River. (Between 2011 and 2015, there was a 13% increase in facilities adhering to stricter EPA standards).
Agriculture in the Potomac River watershed has likely contributed fewer nutrient loads because agricultural activity within the region is declining, as land is converted to accommodate urban sprawl. The Potomac River, which flows from Fairfax Stone, West Virginia to Point Lookout, Maryland, covers a large urban and suburban area. So, while agricultural runoff is decreasing, nitrogen and phosphorus loads in stormwater runoff from developed areas is still a major concern.
Within this report, the Potomac Conservancy grades a number of sub-indicators of river health, such as fish population, underwater grass abundance, and recreational use. These ratings are then examined together to determine overall health. While overall health of the river is improving, there are some areas that are actually doing worse, or showing no marked improvement from previous years. This is the case for water clarity and underwater grass abundance, which received a grade of C-. These two factors are important indicators of health in the Chesapeake Bay (underwater grasses provide food and habitat for marine species, and filter sediments and nutrients in the water, which can improve water clarity). Going forward, I would definitely like to see higher rates of recovery for these two indicators.
There is mixed news for the river’s fish populations. Certain species, such as shad, white perch, and smallmouth bass are experiencing population growth. The Bay’s rockfish population, however, has declined slightly over the past ten years. Many fish species are at continued risk of predation from invasive species such as the blue catfish and snakehead.
In terms of tidal water quality, certain conditions are improving, although numbers for dissolved oxygen, clarity, and chlorophyll A (a measure of algae), vary year to year. Chlorophyll A levels have declined over the last fourteen years. See Figure 4 below.
[We have been taking water samples from both the Potomac River (out of Great Falls), and Antipoison Creek, (which is just off of the Chesapeake Bay, close to where the Rappahannock River meets the Bay), and interestingly, found higher chlorophyll levels in Antipoison Creek. I’ll post more on our results later.]
There was good news for recreational land use, which has gone up since the last report. Recreational use of waterways can be an indicator of improved water quality.
Protected land area has increased, from 1.8 million acres in 2011 to 1.9 million acres in 2013. This area equates to 26.6 percent of land in the Potomac River watershed.
Concerns going forward include rates of deforestation and development in unsuitable areas, and runoff from suburban and urban regions. Agricultural areas, while declining, could still do with the enforcement of Best Management Practices (BMPs). The amount of forested buffers (streamside vegetation which reduces agricultural runoff into tributaries), received a grade of C-.
It’s important to keep in mind that the results in this report do not come from the most current data. The Potomac Conservancy gathers its information from a number of institutions, such as the EPA and the USGS. There is a couple years lag time on data for many of these sub-indicators of overall health.
Information and graph source: State of the Nation’s River 2016, Potomac River Conservancy, http://potomacreportcard.org.
Phosphorus Levels on Maryland Farmland Lower Than Expected, Still a Significant Risk to Bay Water Quality
The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) released a report earlier this month on soil phosphorus levels on state farmland from the second half of 2015. The MDA found that 18% of Maryland’s farmland has soils oversaturated with phosphorus. While this percentage is not as high as was expected,** this is still a significant amount of state land contributing to phosphorus pollution in local waters- this is one out of every five acres of farmland statewide; and two out of three acres on the Eastern Shore, according to the Bay Journal (Wheeler, 2016).
Phosphorus pollution from agricultural fields is a major issue in Maryland, given the high number of poultry farms and poultry manure that is applied as fertilizer to nearby fields. When over-applied to farmland, fertilizer high in phosphorous (which poultry manure is), runs off into local waterways, and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Last year’s update to the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), and the 2016 Poultry Litter Management Act, which has yet to be voted on in the state General Assembly, are Maryland’s regulatory attempts to solve this pollution issue. These regulations would transport phosphorus-laden fertilizer to farmland elsewhere in the state where phosphorus levels are low. The MDA report stated that 82% of farm fields have lower phosphorus levels, excluding these fields from the PMT regulation- meaning these farms will be allowed to continue to apply fertilizer as usual.
The 18% of fields found to have oversaturated soils (high in phosphorus) will be subject to PMT regulations. This targets farmland on the Eastern Shore- two thirds of farmland on the Eastern Shore will be subject to PMT restrictions- and the Lower Eastern Shore in particular, where 11% of farmland is subject to restrictions on phosphorus fertilizers altogether (Maryland Department of Agriculture, 2016).
**Keep in mind that the report gets its data from samples taken on state farmlands, and data is incomplete. The document does not account for 30% of state soils due to a lack of reporting. Half of missing data comes from the Eastern Shore- the portion of Maryland where poultry production is highest, and soil phosphorus levels are of the biggest concern.
The Poultry Litter Management Act, which shifts the burden of storage and transport of poultry manure from contract growers to the chicken industry (companies like Purdue, and Tyson Foods), was heard in the Maryland House and Senate this week. Senate Bill 496 was heard Tuesday afternoon (2/23), and House Bill 599 was heard on Wednesday (2/24).
In addition to shifting the responsibility of manure storage and transport from farmer to the poultry industry, these companies must work with their contract farmers to create nutrient management plans, to determine how much manure may be kept on surrounding agricultural fields as fertilizer. These nutrient management plans are to be completed before a contract grower is provided poultry.
If a farmer has too much manure, the poultry company (referred to as the integrator in the Bills) must ensure the contract grower is able to properly store the manure, until the manure can be transported to an appropriate location. Transport will be paid for by the poultry company, and not by the farmer or by taxpayer dollars (as transport is currently subsidized in part by the state of Maryland).
While the Act will shift burden of responsibility away from individual growers, there has been some backlash from agricultural groups in Maryland. A major complaint is that the Act gives poultry companies expanded powers over independent farmers, and takes away a farmer’s right to sell excess manure as fertilizer. Some fear that taking away the loss of the current cost-share system of poultry transport will create financial losses for contract growers.
Benefits, however, include expected improvements to water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Over-application of manure in Maryland, and particularly on the Eastern Shore, results in tons of phosphorus runoff polluting local tributaries, and the greater estuary. Ensuring poultry manure transport to areas where fields are not inundated with phosphorus should reduce runoff and pollution issues in Maryland and in the overall watershed.
The Act is set to be implemented in October 2016, dependent on its passing in the House and Senate. While the Bills were heard, the Act has yet to be voted on. Updates to follow.
Maryland Introduces Poultry Litter Management Act, Shifting Burden of Manure Removal from Chicken Farmers to Big Ag
Last year, there was a lot of legislative turmoil surrounding the application of poultry manure on Maryland farmlands. Large-scale production of poultry is prevalent in Maryland, and on the Eastern Shore especially. Poultry manure is usually distributed on adjacent or nearby agricultural fields, which don’t necessarily need the excess fertilizer. Manure, high in phosphorus, therefore runs off into the Chesapeake Bay, contributing to nutrient pollution in the estuary.
While big companies such as Purdue supply many of the chicken farms in Maryland, it has been left to the individual farmers to deal with manure, and any of the associated costs of removal of excess manure. This is about to change. Maryland legislators introduced the Poultry Litter Management Act earlier this week. This Act aims to place the financial burden of excess manure removal in the hands of the big companies, such as Perdue.
According to the Baltimore Sun, poultry farms produce about 228,000 tons of manure per year that must be removed from agricultural lands. With last year’s updates to the Phosphorus Management Tool, further restrictions on amounts of manure that can be applied to fields are being phased in, and will increase the tonnage of excess manure that has to be removed.
Requiring the large companies to pay for removal will help the often financially-struggling chicken farmers, and the Maryland taxpayers that have been contributing to removal costs (as some of these costs are subsidized by the state). While poultry companies collectively rake in about a billion dollars each year, the new Act will only require the industry to spend about four million dollars per year.
Last week, I saw several Chesapeake Bay news stories referencing a Maryland Lawn Fertilizer Law. There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about agricultural application of fertilizer, and the harmful effects nutrient farm runoff has on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Fertilizer is also frequently applied in nonagricultural settings, (with lawn fertilizer accounting for 44% of all fertilizer sold in Maryland), and can have just as harmful an impact on the Bay (but at a smaller scale).
I took a look into the Maryland Lawn Fertilizer Law, which went into effect in 2013. This law creates limits and restrictions for lawn fertilizer application across the state, in an attempt to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the Bay Watershed. Before 2013, there were no Maryland state laws aimed at homeowners, and other non-agricultural consumers of fertilizer. Restrictions of fertilizer use for farmers has been in place since 2001. The Maryland Lawn Fertilizer Law targets fertilizer use by not only urban and suburban homeowners, but also owners of golf courses, parks and athletic fields, and businesses.
While the law does not forbid home and business owners from applying any fertilizer, it limits what can be laid down – limits that are created based on what is strictly necessary (and determined by the University of Maryland). Excess fertilizer results in stormwater runoff, depositing phosphorus and nitrogen into the Bay watershed, which is already heavily polluted with these nutrients.
This state law overrules any preexisting county legislation in Maryland that applied to nonagricultural fertilizer use.
-Lawn fertilizers with phosphorus (unless a soil test is taken, and shows that a particular lawn is in need of phosphorus)
-Lawn fertilizers with less than 20% nitrogen that is slow release
-The application of more than 0.9 pounds of total nitrogen per 1,000 square feet
-The hiring of lawn care professionals not certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture (penalties apply: $1000 for the first violation, $2000 for every violation after that)
-The application of lawn fertilizers during “blackout dates” (November 15 – March 1)
-The application of lawn fertilizers to any impervious surfaces
-The application of lawn fertilizers before heavy rain forecasts
-The application of lawn fertilizers within 15 feet of waterways
Is nutrient pollution trading in Maryland the answer to Bay cleanup or just another stalling mechanism? Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has proposed a new pollution trading system focused on nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. The system would allow communities, in need of upgrades to their local sewage treatment plants and stormwater runoff programs, to instead pay area farmers to pollute less. While this may result in fewer loads of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agricultural sources, (which is greatly needed), the plan allows urban and suburban communities to shift focus away from their own sources of pollution. The state should instead be focusing on a two-pronged approach, targeting pollution loads from agricultural and urban/suburban sources.
Agriculture is one of the leading sources of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, but it is not the only major source. Municipal and industrial wastewater (a sector that includes sewage treatment plants), contributes 19% of the nitrogen that reaches the Bay, and 21% of phosphorus; urban and suburban runoff contributes 31% of phosphorus pollution in the Bay (National Research Council, 2011). Just last week, The Washington Post reported on a Maryland-based water treatment plant, just north of Washington, D.C., that has been polluting millions of pounds of nutrients and chemicals into the Potomac River. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which runs the plant, from the outcome of a recent legal settlement, has agreed to make millions of dollars worth of upgrades to its outdated facility, (built in the 1960s). These upgrades are expensive, but they are long overdue, and are needed to improve water quality in the Potomac River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Supporters of the proposed nutrient trading program in Maryland argue that nutrient trading will allow for cleanup of the Bay, while reducing costs to communities, which might have plants that need millions of dollars worth of upgrades, like the WSSC facility . However, I would argue that nutrient trading allows half of the pollution problem to be ignored. Maryland should target both agricultural runoff and urban and suburban sources of pollution if its leaders are serious about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.