By suggesting this week that he might propose mandatory controls on agricultural runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, Gov. Parris N. Glendening could be be setting up an election-year clash among some of the state's most powerful interests.
Farmers and their representatives expressed anger yesterday at Glendening's comment that the state may have to go beyond the current voluntary controls to deal with a toxic micro-organism that has been killing fish in two bay tributaries.
"The governor's already talking about nutrient management legislation -- based on what?" demanded Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican nursery farmer who represents the Eastern Shore.
Stoltzfus, a former chicken farmer, warned that the furor over farm runoff would harm the state's poultry industry, an economic mainstay of the Shore. "If they run into regulatory resistance here, they're mobile. They'll vote with their feet and leave," he said.
Meanwhile, bay advocates expressed hope that concerns about toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida could provide the impetus for a victory on the agricultural runoff issue in the 1998 General Assembly session.
"My suspicion of what will ultimately happen is that a fairly aggressive piece of environmental legislation will pass," said Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat and veteran )) environmentalist.
Agricultural runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries has long been a hot-button issue in Annapolis, where the farm and chicken-packing industries have repeatedly beaten back environmentalists' efforts to impose mandatory controls.
But this summer's news of Pfiesteria-related fish kills and human illness in the Pocomoke River and Kings Creek may have changed the political dynamic. State scientists have advanced the hypothesis that agricultural runoff may be helping to foster the conditions that turn the normally benign Pfiesteria into a menace.
"The terms of the debate are changing right now," said Tom Grasso, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The issue is a touchy one for Assembly leaders, whose positions depend on a coalition of urban and rural interests.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said "it's too early to tell" whether farm pollution will emerge as a pivotal issue in the coming session. He expressed hope that the legislature could reach an "enlightened consensus" on the matter.
During a news conference Thursday, Glendening moved to forge such a consensus by announcing the creation of a commission headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes to determine which steps must be taken to protect the bay.
But agreement could prove elusive. Already yesterday, there were signs of battle lines being drawn.
On the Eastern Shore, Glendening's statement that "the problem in the water is coming from the land" was reverberating among farmers.
It raised the hackles of Larry Porter, who raises chickens near Kings Creek, a stream that was closed by Glendening Wednesday after evidence of Pfiesteria was found.
"I heard him saying land was responsible. I think it's nonsense," said Porter, of Princess Anne. "By making it mandatory, they're saying we don't have any confidence in the farmer."
The critical question before the Hughes commission will be whether the evidence connecting fish-killing outbreaks of Pfiesteria to agricultural runoff -- especially manure from Eastern Shore chicken houses -- is solid enough to justify a government mandate to clean up the farms.
Environmental groups have long believed the case that farm runoff is doing serious harm to the bay is airtight. In their view, the news of a potential link between nutrients and Pfiesteria -- and that human health could be at stake -- have simply provided further evidence that urgent action is necessary.
"The burden is not on the government, the burden is not on the scientists to demonstrate that nutrients are causing the problem," said Billings. "The burden is on those who are overloading the nutrients to show that they are not causing the problem."
But rural legislators and the farm lobby take the opposite view.
"I am looking for an absolute, scientifically verifiable proof that Pfiesteria and agricultural wastes are connected," Stoltzfus said. the good, hard-working farmer, to impose mandatory regulations based on unfinished science smacks of totalitarianism."
C. William Knill, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said he hoped the commission wouldn't rush to judgment in targeting farmers for the Pfiesteria outbreaks.
"Scientists have been studying this for several years in North Carolina and haven't come up with anything," said Knill, a Carroll County farmer. "I hope agriculture doesn't get slapped in the face and take all the blame before we know what we're talking about."
The Hughes commission has been given until Nov. 1 to complete its work, leaving the administration time to prepare legislation for the General Assembly session that begins in January.