Bay needs help so do farmers

On The Bay

Pfiesteria: Outbreaks among fish should lead to tighter regulation of runoff, subsidies to control pollution.

September 12, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

LAST WEEK, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation unveiled an anniversary video reviewing its 30 years of "bay saving," which included this warning:

A mysterious killer organism has arisen that is eating the flesh of fish and causing memory loss and other health problems in humans who come in contact with the water.

If the foundation had even posed such a possibility anytime during its first 29 years and 11 months, I and most people would have thought it needlessly alarmist, a ploy to get attention.

But with recent closures of parts of two rivers because of the likely ravages of Pfiesteria piscicida, alarmism has become reality.

While there are many larger threats to the bay, from sewage and airborne pollution to the whole complex of strains from a fast-growing human population, this is something unique.

Nothing gets national attention like horribly ravaged fish and fishermen who don't remember so well anymore after a day on the water.

My guess is we're not far from devastating the mammoth seafood economy of the whole Chesapeake.

Until this week, Pfiesteria seemed confined to 7 miles of the lower Pocomoke. Now with King's Creek joining the Pocomoke, the public could start to perceive that the situation is out of control, baywide, though it might not be logical, and it might not be fair.

But at some point it could get very hard to sell a crab or an oyster or a rockfish from the Chesapeake -- lots of other places to get seafood; why take a chance?

Already the bay foundation has had a school, concerned about Pfiesteria, cancel a trip to one of its environmental education centers on the water several miles from the Pocomoke.

We cannot take chances with this situation. Last week I wrote of the need to take the Pocomoke's problems as a virtual mandate to make it a river of special federal and state concern, a concern that ultimately would benefit the whole bay. King's Creek, less than 15 miles away, underscores that.

Broadly, this should include comprehensive, long-term research into the nature of Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake (a guideline: I'd rather see less money, guaranteed over several years, than a bigger chunk that has to be spent quickly).

The second imperative is a revamping of Maryland's flawed approach to polluted runoff from farm fertilizers and manures.

This is the dominant source of pollution to the Pocomoke and other Eastern Shore rivers and a major source of pollution baywide.

It is not conclusively linked to Pfiesteria -- enough to indict but not to convict, as one scientist put it. But it is linked conclusively to such a range of other bay problems, from low oxygen to the loss of sea grasses, that we cannot lose by intensifying cleanup efforts.

The governor has formed a task force to come up with a plan. For starters, its members could target farm pollution.

Letting the Department of Agriculture continue to have sole responsibility for overseeing pollution from farms must end.

The Agriculture people aren't bad guys. But they're the farmers' guys, as they should be; and they won't put water quality foremost.

We have an Environmental Protection Agency and a Maryland Department of the Environment to do that, and both must quit being chicken-hearted.

The handful of poultry companies that controls virtually every aspect of raising more than 100 million chickens along the Pocomoke can no longer be allowed to leave the disposal of manure to the thousands of individual farmers who grow the chickens under contract.

Growing winter cover crops is one of the few proven ways to help keep nitrogen in the manure from polluting waterways.

The state's plan to help pay for cover crops is laudable. But the state should go even further by requiring Maryland farmers in the Pocomoke watershed to plant them.

The state also should require that phosphorus in farm manure be managed along with nitrogen. It isn't now, and research indicates it might be a prime suspect in stimulating Pfiesteria.

In the case of the Pocomoke, the state should consider a ceiling on the numbers of animals and the quantity of their wastes or at least establish limits on how much nitrogen and phosphorus can be allowed.

Sewage treatment plants and septic tanks in the Pocomoke watershed must be upgraded to remove more nitrogen and phosphorus, and homeowners and golf course operators educated to minimize fertilization.

These are small contributors compared to farms, but fair's fair.

And in fairness to farmers and poultry processors, the above must happen in the context of more public subsidy and national standards to control farm pollution.

We are all part of a system that strives for abundant and cheap food, and producing it cleanly is a cost rightly shared by all who eat.

Similarly, you cannot expect processors of Maryland poultry, who sell in a ferociously competitive national market, to incur much additional expense and remain here.

Animal wastes are causing big problems nationwide (like a 6,000 square mile "dead zone" where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico), and national standards make sense.

And let us not forget Maryland's partners in the bay cleanup, Pennsylvania and Virginia, whose half-hearted measures to tackle agricultural pollution differ from ours only in the details.

Doing what is outlined above won't be free or technically easy; but lawsuits and health claims against farmers and processors, boycotts of chicken and the crash of the Chesapeake's seafood economy wouldn't be much fun either.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.