Without legal curbs, runoff continues


February 05, 1994|By TOM HORTON

A couple weeks ago in Annapolis, all on the same day, you could have heard:

* The Maryland Farm Bureau boast that its members are making unprecedented progress in voluntarily reducing water pollution.

* A leading environmentalist, state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, warn that without a law to stiffen their resolve, farmers will never meet bay restoration goals.

* Gov. William Donald Schaefer decline to back Mr. Winegrad's proposed law, even as he upbraided farmers for not moving fast or far enough on pollution control.

Welcome to a new chapter in saving the Chesapeake -- a chapter still in very rough and uncertain draft.

For better or worse, our hopes for the next advances in bay cleanup will not focus on the regulation and litigation that have brought major progress in reducing sewage and industrial pollution.

Instead, we are depending as never before on voluntarism, stewardship, education and persuasion -- good tools in any cleanup effort, but often held to be most effective when backed by legal authority.

Farms are just one example of this trend. Recent adoption of "visions" instead of new regulations to check rampant sprawl development is another example (and another column).

There are reasons -- some technical, some political -- that agriculture has won different consideration. Although farm runoff from fertilizers and manure is as much a reason for the bay's decline as sewage, runoff comes from millions of acres, and millions of chickens and cows.

These are less easily targeted, monitored or penalized than a relative handful of discharge pipes. Neither have those diffuse pollution sources stirred public outrage and led to calls for action as did large factories and wastewater facilities.

The result is that in the bay's drainage basin, only Pennsylvania has passed a law to control farm pollution, and it applies only to 15 percent of farms (and has not been implemented yet).

Governor Schaefer's ambivalence probably reflects the feelings of a lot of people as they grapple with farmers and voluntarism. Compared with the situation even a few years ago, Maryland's agricultural community has come a long way. Merely accepting that farmers were, collectively, a major bay polluter was a hard bullet to bite.

Maryland farmers could cite genuine progress in the results of a Farm Bureau membership survey the bureau released at a recent news conference, in hopes of proving the voluntary approach can work:

* Since 1989, farmers' plans to reduce the runoff of fertilizer and manure from nearly 20 percent of the state's cropland, or about 300,000 acres, have been approved or are in the pipeline.

* More than half of the farmers surveyed leave mulch on their winter fields to retard polluted runoff, compared with about one-third nationwide.

* More than half of the farmers surveyed said they have reduced their use of pesticides during the last three years (1 percent reported an increase).

And yet, listen to Mr. Winegrad, who has become a respected authority on agricultural pollution. The Annapolis Democrat says farmers are less than halfway to their 1995 interim goal of implementing nutrient-reduction plans (which keep manure and commercial fertilizer out of waterways) on 800,000 acres.

Mr. Winegrad notes that the governor recently axed a key budget request by the state agriculture department for $2.6 million to hire more specialists who would assist farmers in planning ways to reduce pollution.

In 1987, says Mr. Winegrad, Maryland "ag" officials pledged that all farms would be covered by soil and water conservation plans by 1997; yet with three years to go, only 41 percent are covered.

In 1987, he says, officials pledged that by 1992 similar pollution control plans would cover 100 percent of farmland close to the edges of the bay and its tributaries -- but as of 1993, only 72 percent was covered.

Plans to reduce nitrogen

I also checked with Russ Brinsfield, a Maryland agricultural researcher who has developed one of the most promising strategies to reducing nitrogen, a key nutrient polluting the bay.

How much of Maryland's cropland is now employing this method, which involves planting winter vegetation to suck up excess nitrogen before it can move to the bay through ground water?

Acceptance is beginning to grow rapidly, he says, but the method is being used only on 2 percent to 3 percent of the state's crop acreage. Nitrogen, which causes losses of underwater grass and oxygen, hasn't declined at all in the bay since the current restoration program began a decade ago.

Lynn Shuyler straddles the worlds of farming and regulation better than most around the bay. A Kansas farm boy who worked in agricultural extension services, he is now the farm pollution expert for the Environmental Protection Agency's bay restoration office in Annapolis.

Mr. Shuyler thinks that Maryland's farming community recognizes the problems agriculture causes but may not realize the magnitude of them or the difficulty of the solution.

Runoff reduction years away

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