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.
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.
Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware are set to receive $1 million each from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of a federal effort to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Money will go toward farmers in the Bay watershed with stream access on their properties. Specifically, the money supports planting of vegetated streamside buffers on agricultural lands.
These vegetated streamside buffers, or riparian buffer zones, act as physical barriers to livestock, which might otherwise have direct access to pollute streams. Riparian buffer zones also reduce sediment and nutrient loads, running off from farmland, and entering the watershed.
The USDA is able to offer federal funds to Bay states under their Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). According to the USDA, CREP and USDA funds (about $500 million in total), supplied to Bay states since 1996, have resulted in the planting of 7000 miles of riparian buffer zones, and “have prevented an estimated eight million tons of sediment, 16 million pounds of nitrogen, and four million pounds of phosphorus from entering the waters of the watershed.” (See http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/10/0271.xml&contentidonly=true).
The USDA CREP program is voluntary. Funds are being offered to agricultural landowners who agree to participate in planting riparian buffer zones, and require financial support.
The $4 million going to Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware is a first round of funding. A second round from the USDA will likely target Maryland and Pennsylvania- states with significant amounts of agricultural runoff to the Chesapeake Bay.
This summer we shared the rulings from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and allies vs. the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). See here.
The most recent ruling from the Third Circuit was the result of an appeal from the AFBF of a lower court decision upholding the legality of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint in 2010 (the Blueprint that sets Total Maximum Daily Loads or TMDLs for the Bay states and Washington, D.C.). While all Bay states and D.C. support this Blueprint, and are committed to cleaning up their watershed, pushback is coming from interest groups and states outside of the Bay watershed. These groups originally sued the EPA for overstepping on an issue that they claim should be left up to the states. The EPA argues that it has the right and responsibility to uphold the Clean Water Blueprint under the Clean Water Act. Groups, such as the AFBF, fear that the EPA’s role in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed will set a precedent, allowing the federal government to intervene in the cleanup of other major watersheds around the nation, such as the Mississippi River Watershed. Big agriculture groups fear that they would be a major target of watershed cleanup plans. As such, the AFBF and its allies plan to appeal the Third Circuit court decision, and bring the case before the Supreme Court.
The Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit which researches and reports on local environmental issues, has weighed in on the phosphorus pollution problem in the Chesapeake Watershed. In Maryland, and especially on the Eastern Shore, there are an excess number of poultry farms. Manure from these farms is frequently applied in excess to farms in the vicinity. While recent legislation in Maryland has begun to address the application of manure, state legislators have done nothing to limit the number of poultry farms in operation, or block the development of additional poultry farming operations.
The Environmental Integrity Project, (EIP), in a recent report, has highlighted that over 200 new poultry farms have been approved on the Delmarva Peninsula, with dozens set to go up in Maryland. The EIP foresees that this will likely “undermine any progress the state might achieve through its June 2015 manure management regulations.” In addition, the EIP has pointed out that, while this poultry operation expansion is going on, the state of Maryland has cut much of its water quality monitoring in and off of the Eastern Shore, due to what they cite as a lack of funds.
Published with the report is an interactive map, showing where poultry operations can be found on the Eastern Shore, where manure is being spread, and where water monitoring cutbacks have occurred. The map and report can be found here.
Last month I posted about the Richmond Circuit Court ruling against the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) in the case of CBF vs. Virginia, (see here). In this case, CBF argued that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board should have included livestock exclusion from streams in a permit that both agencies passed late last year on land application of animal waste.
The Richmond Circuit Court, after reviewing the Virginia Pollution Abatement Permit in question, decided that given the lack of clarity in the permit’s wording, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board were able to make their own call on the issue of livestock exclusion from streams. With this ruling, CBF’s case was rejected. As of last week, CBF has decided not to appeal this decision.
The Richmond Circuit Court judge who heard the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) vs. Virginia lawsuit earlier this month has ruled against CBF’s plea to keep livestock out of state streams and rivers. The decision allows large livestock farmers, particularly cattle farmers, to give animals unfettered access to Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Virginia has pledged to institute Best Management Practices (BMPs), including the use of stream buffers and fences on farmlands, to reduce nutrient and sediment loads to the Bay. This ruling, however, impedes the institution of such practices, and threatens water quality in the watershed.
CBF sued the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board over the passing of the Virginia Pollution Abatement Permit- a permit that regulates animal waste management for animal feeding operations. The permit fails to address the need for large livestock farms (i.e. 200-300 cattle) to put into place stream buffers and fencing that would keep livestock out of streams and rivers on these farms. (Please see this post from July 1). Without buffers and fencing, livestock can deposit waste directly into waters, and can erode stream banks, putting excess sediment into the watershed.
The lawsuit, heard on July 9, was dismissed by Judge C.N. Jenkins. While CBF argues that free-roaming livestock can “apply” their waste directly to streams, the judge believes that application of manure can only refer to the spreading of waste by livestock farmers.