Talking candidly about cleanup Debate: A key scientist argues that "while Maryland is clearly not doing enough, it is doing more than virtually anyone else" to curb pollution from farm runoff.

On the Bay

October 03, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TOM SIMPSON called to ask: "Did you take mean pills before you wrote last week's column?"

The column argued that Maryland's agricultural leadership was incapable of achieving cleanup goals for the fertilizers and manures running to the bay from farms.

Simpson is the liaison from Maryland's Department of Agriculture and the Agriculture College of the University of Maryland, College Park to the Chesapeake Bay Program, the multistate and federal program that works to restore Chesapeake water quality.

Though we don't always agree, I've always been impressed by (( Simpson, a soil scientist and farm waste management expert who came to the bay program in 1992 from a professorship at Virginia Tech University.

In a cleanup where most sources of bay pollution are regulated, the voluntary programs that Maryland allows farmers have become minefields of contention, exacerbated by suspected links between farm runoff and recent Pfiesteria outbreaks.

Few people could have navigated this difficult terrain as effectively and conscientiously as Simpson.

He is very much agriculture's representative, but not an apologist. He understands environmental concerns to a refreshing degree.

I have watched him at night meetings across the state explain in a nonthreatening way to farmers the complex, often painful data about their impact on water quality -- a masterful demonstration of effective communication.

Simpson said he wanted to talk candidly about what he sees as agriculture's overlooked contributions to bay cleanup, as well as its problems.

The ironic aspect of agriculture and water quality here, he says, is that "while Maryland is clearly not doing enough, it is doing more than virtually anyone else. I'm asked all over the country to talk about it."

Our state, he says, is 35th in farm acreage, but No. 1 in acres where nutrient management plans have been written to guide farmers in reducing polluted runoff. These plans have resulted in a large substitution of manures for commercial fertilizers.

Previously, farmers did not include the fertilizer value of manure in their planning. After spreading manure on their fields simply to dispose of it, they would add all the commercial fertilizer they thought the crop needed.

More recently, farmers have cut down on this overfertilizing. Farmers have typically cut the manure they spread from 10 to 12 tons an acre to around 3 tons, Simpson points out.

The so-called tributary planning in which Maryland farmers are engaged, with environmentalists and government, is also "unprecedented" nationally, he says.

These plans recognize that sources of pollution vary from river to river (sewage in populous areas, manure in farming areas, for example).

Tributary teams are tailoring to each river a suite of measures to control polluted runoff, from urban street sweeping to creating forests and wetlands where farms intersect waterways.

Simpson says UM's Agriculture College has become a national leader in research on farming and water quality -- 40 percent of its research dollars go to such areas.

Ironically, research emerging from the college may turn farmers' worlds upside down just as they begin to feel comfortable with current pollution management.

Studies indicate current plans for spreading manure based on the nitrogen that crops need are loading soils with too much phosphorus (both nitrogen and phosphorus are major bay pollutants, killing sea grasses and lowering oxygen in the water).

In areas where poultry is raised, the responsible practice may be to stop spreading manure, raising the huge and expensive question of what to do with it.

Simpson feels I have been too quick to criticize research officials for not making their phosphorus concerns public years earlier.

"Given the devastating consequences, our evidence had to be very solid.

"But within the university, the question does now have to be raised: Can we responsibly keep writing nutrient management plans based on nitrogen?" he says.

While the control of farm pollution is far from complete, Simpson worries the push to do something about Pfiesteria "may result in some crisis-oriented controls that in a couple years we may all regret."

He still feels a voluntary cleanup for farmers can work better than regulation. "Changing behavior is always better than setting speed limits."

But he concedes it is time for change in industries such as poultry, which controls most aspects of producing 600 million chickens a year on the Delmarva Peninsula, but leave manure as the sole responsibility of small grower-farmers.

"The whole animal industry needs to propose some solutions to realize that self-regulation will be less onerous and cheaper in the long run than regulations," Simpson says.

He adds: "The reason we grow so many chickens on the Eastern Shore is society wants cheap chicken. If we have to do some expensive things to manage the waste better, society needs to be a part of that, too."

He knows a big concern environmentalists have about agriculture's voluntary cleanup is the lack of accountability. How many farmers actually follow their nutrient management plans, for example?

"It has been embarrassing, when we are asked these things, when people say how many chickens are raised on the Pocomoke River [site of a Pfiesteria outbreak] -- to say we don't know," Simpson says. "But I don't know an easy way to improve on it in a voluntary approach."

Simpson says he thinks the agriculture community "has been hurt by an inability to have frank and candid discussions with the environmental community.

"And I think all sides have a tendency to take a position first, then go hunt some science to support it."

Does he see any quick reconciliation of the differences between agriculture and environmental concerns?

"No, but I'm an optimist. It can only happen if we're all talking honestly to each other."

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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