Governor asked to OK subsidy for farmers in anti-Pfiesteria move $2 million would help keep nutrients out of bay

September 03, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- State officials and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will ask Gov. Parris N. Glendening for $2 million in emergency spending to help farmers keep nutrients -- among the suspected culprits in the Pocomoke River Pfiesteria outbreak -- in their fields and out of the Chesapeake Bay.

Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley and Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin signed a memo yesterday asking the governor to meet with them to discuss restoration of cover-crop subsidies, said Royden N. Powell III, assistant agriculture secretary.

Powell said Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, had agreed to join in the request. The conservative Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, and the liberal Frosh, who heads a Senate environmental subcommittee, are regarded as the two most influential legislators on environmental policy.

The runoff of nutrients from farmers' fields is suspected of contributing to the conditions that turned a docile single-celled algae-eater into a toxin-releasing fish killer in the lower Pocomoke River.

The state has ordered a 7-mile stretch of the river closed after August brought two fish kills and evidence that Pfiesteria toxins might cause illness in human beings.

The plan to seek the appropriation was disclosed yesterday at a briefing for Eastern Shore officials on problems caused by Pfiesteria. The forum was organized by U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the 1st District, who offered to lend his support to an effort to secure federal funds to offset some of the state's costs for the farmers' subsidies.

Judi Scioli, Glendening's press secretary, said she was not aware of such a proposal. "He will look seriously at any recommendation that will have a positive effect on land use that will help preserve the bay," she said.

Under the proposal, spending would come in the form of a "deficiency appropriation" -- a procedure for meeting unexpected budget needs when the Assembly is out of session.

Powell said the old program, in effect from fiscal 1994 to fiscal 1996, had been "clearly effective" in controlling soil erosion but was scrapped in a budget squeeze. In fiscal 1994, it paid $647,975 to 443 participants to subsidize the planting of 23,000 acres.

Guns, who attended the briefing, said backers of the plan hope to stimulate the planting of 50,000 acres in the bay watershed.

Restoring the program is especially critical now because this year's drought stunted crops' growth and prevented them from absorbing the normal amount of nitrogen from the soil, Powell said.

Nitrogen compounds are among the nutrients suspected of contributing to the conditions that led to the toxic Pfiesteria outbreak. Powell said a winter crop of such grains as rye and barley would help absorb excess nitrogen. He added that by controlling erosion, it would also decrease the runoff of phosphorus, another component of nutrient pollution.

Michael L. Shultz, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the cover-crop subsidy "an effective and rapid way to get at the nutrient problem in the basin." He noted that the foundation has offered to put up $50,000 of its funds for such an effort.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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