The time is long past for farmers to accept responsibility for controlling and cleaning up their pollution, and for the state to take firm action to stop the torrent of farm fertilizers and animal wastes that poisons Maryland waters.
Chemical and manure runoff from agricultural fields makes up more than 40 percent of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries -- the largest source of bay pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those polluting nutrients feed the harmful algae that degrade and destroy healthy aquatic life.
This devastating runoff, and farmland soil erosion, can be reduced through manure containment pits, winter cover crops, limiting applications of fertilizers, and stream bank fencing.
But few farmers appear to be conscientiously using these controls. About 10 percent of Maryland farmland is covered by voluntary nutrient management plans. Only a small fraction of farms have built manure tanks or lagoons, even though government grants will pay 88 percent of their cost.
The government rarely enforces laws against farm pollution of waters. Cases drag on for years, or are dropped without satisfactory resolution. Few agrarian polluters are fined; heavy fish kills provide the only basis for even modest penalties.
One of the reasons for government leniency is Gov. William Donald Schaefer's sensitivity to the farm lobby. He has long argued for voluntary education programs instead of fines, even though farmers know very well what the needed measures are and, more importantly, what they will cost.
Another reason is the lack of a permit program for farm operators, which would allow state inspections and require pollution prevention measures. Pollution cases are now referred to county soil conservation districts, which prefer to help their constituent farmers rather than to sanction them.
Well-meaning farmers who want to apply for cleanup aid often run into a blind bureaucracy, with untoward delays in processing plans and in providing necessary information.
When farmer polluters are identified, they often claim they can't afford to take the necessary cleanup steps, and carry on without penalty. That excuse wouldn't work for a gas station or a housing development cited for similar runoff pollution.
It's a complicated situation that demands correction. Virginia now requires permits for large animal herds. After four years of defeats, Pennsylvania appears ready to enact a law requiring livestock operators to use nutrient management practices.
A bill before Maryland's General Assembly would force farmers getting government money to install nutrient management plans -- but only if voluntary efforts fail. It's a weak measure, diluted by farmer opposition, but it is something to begin the process of making agriculturalists respect the same environmental laws that the rest of us do.