Schaefer lectures farmers on pollution

January 26, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Though Maryland farmers have reduced their pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, they need to do much more -- and promptly -- if the troubled estuary is to be restored "in our lifetime," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday.

Speaking at a gathering of agricultural and environmental officials in Annapolis, Mr. Schaefer warned that the bay cleanup may fail unless farmers dramatically increase their participation in mostly voluntary pollution-control programs. But the governor stopped short of endorsing legislation requiring farmers to curb the use of fertilizers, which have fouled the Chesapeake and its tributaries and contaminated ground water on the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Schaefer's sobering lecture to farmers overshadowed a pair of events staged yesterday to celebrate agriculture's achievements in helping to save the bay.

The governor and Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes presided over a ceremony at which the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially joined the federal-state bay cleanup.

Earlier, a survey was released by the Maryland Farm Bureau showing that state farmers already are doing plenty to curb pollution, according to the bureau.

But Mr. Schaefer said he was tempted to endorse a bill by state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, an Anne Arundel Democrat, that would impose mandatory controls unless many more farmers embrace self-regulation.

"For what we've accomplished, we can take a pat on the back," Mr. Schaefer said. "But that's not enough. If we're really deadly serious about cleaning up the bay, we've got to do more. . . . We've got to do it faster, and we've got to tighten it up."

The governor said he is troubled by the failure so far to reduce the flow of one key pollutant -- nitrogen -- into the Chesapeake.

The nutrient reaches the water from a variety of sources, including sewage and air pollution.

But nearly 40 percent comes from farmland, studies show.

Agriculture accounts for up to 60 percent of the nitrogen in some rivers, such as the largely rural Choptank on the Shore.

The farm bureau's survey indicates that Maryland farmers do more to curb erosion and reduce fertilizer use than their counterparts in most other states.

Among its findings:

* Farmers here practice conservation in the way they till about 55 percent of the state's 1.5 million acres of cropland, compared with the national average of 35 percent.

* Eighteen percent of the farmers surveyed said they had drafted "nutrient management plans" for reducing runoff of fertilizer and manure.

* Fifty-two percent of the farmers reported using alternatives to chemical pesticides for controlling weeds and insects.

Lewis Riley, deputy state agriculture secretary, said he and other officials hope the survey will head off perennial moves in the General Assembly to impose mandatory pollution controls on farmers.

"We're working to do our part," said William Knill, a Carroll County farmer who is president of the bureau. He noted there are no similar calls to regulate "every homeowner."

But Senator Winegrad, whose bill passed the Senate last year and died in the House, contended that Maryland's voluntary approach falls short.

He said that only 273,000 acres of Maryland's 1.9 million acres of farmland are covered by the nutrient management plans designed to control runoff.

Senator Winegrad also noted that federal agriculture officials so far have put no money behind their pledge, signed yesterday, to cooperate in cleaning up the bay.

Yet Maryland government lacks the resources needed to enlist farmers in the effort, he said.

"The only way to save the bay is to push agriculture along," Mr. Winegrad said.

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