Bay cleanup plan counts on farmers' cooperation State short of funds to force compliance

February 04, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Maryland farmers will be asked, rather than required, to boost their efforts to help restore the Chesapeake Bay under a new pollution-control plan announced yesterday.

Responding to computer studies that show farms to be the biggest source of bay polluntants, officials unveiled an "action agenda" for curbing the runoff of nutrients from Maryland's 2.9 million acres of farmland.

New regulations are in the works, officials said, that would require farmers to control erosion and to reduce polluted runoff from large livestock operations. But, lacking new funds and having already cut the staff that works with farmers on conservation, the state plans to rely mainly on voluntary cleanup.

The plan, for example, calls for getting fertilizer salesmen and farmers to sell their colleagues on the benefits of using less fertilizer to grow crops and of curbing runoff from fields and pastures.

Nutrients from sewage, farms, suburban lawns and air pollution render vast stretches of the bay's bottom lifeless in summer. Overdoses of nitrogen and phosphorus feed massive algae blooms, which block sunlight needed by bay grasses and consume the oxygen in the water that fish need to breathe.

Farms are the source of 38 percent of the nitrogen and 48 percent of the phosphorus entering state waters, according to computer models.

Environmentalists promptly criticized the plan, saying it does not go far enough. Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad called the program "horse manure" and vowed to reintroduce two bills that would make pollution controls mandatory and would finance cleanup efforts through a tax on fertilizer and pesticide sales. "It's a rosy picture to justify their not doing anything," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said.

State officials and farm leaders, however, insisted that farmers would do their part without being subjected to regulations.

"We can't afford a program that runs our farmers out of business," said Robert L. Walker, state agriculture secretary.

More than 70,000 erosion-control measures, some as simple as leaving grassy buffers between fields and streams, have been taken on more than 1 million acres of Maryland farmland since 1985. But only 180,000 acres, or about 10 percent of the state's crop- and pasture-lands, are covered by "nutrient-management plans." The plans provide guidelines to help farmers reduce fertilizer use and minimize runoff of manure and chemicals.

If the state is to meet its goal of reducing by 40 percent the nutrients entering the bay by the end of the decade, state officials say, at least 70 percent of farmland must be covered by such plans.

"We have to give these things a little bit of time," said C. William Knill, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. Mr. Knill has a 550-acre farm near Mount Airy.

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