A plan for saving the bay Nutrient runoffs: Controls on agriculture are needed regardless of Pfiesteria problem.

January 30, 1998

IN AN ODD WAY, the Pfiesteria piscicida organism has done us a favor by drawing attention to the fragile health of the Chesapeake Bay. Pfiesteria alerted us to the need to curb nutrient pollution -- phosphorus and nitrogen -- caused by failing septic systems and treatment plants, lawn fertilization and, most notably, agriculture.

Last summer, nutrient pollution helped trigger toxic behavior in Pfiesteria, a naturally occurring microbe. That's why Gov. Parris N. Glendening's much-needed $41.5 million plan targets such runoffs.

But it is a mistake to associate the governor's proposals -- the most important and contentious of which is regulating fertilizer use on farms -- solely with Pfiesteria. An excess of nutrients hurts the bay in other ways, as has been established for at least three decades. Too many nutrients cause algae to grow out of control, turning clear water murky and sucking up oxygen, killing aquatic grasses and creatures.

Thus, the governor's plan must be viewed in a broader context: It is something we should doeven if Pfiesteria were not an issue.

The plan follows recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes. Mr. Glendening correctly has avoided putting the onus for nutrient runoff exclusively on farmers; his plan would fund upgrades of sewage-treatment plants, develop guidelines for new septic-tank systems and regulate commercial landscapers and golf courses -- all contributors to the bay's woes.

Agriculture, though, is the biggest offender. Any meaningful bay restoration program must include changes in the way farmers operate.

Ideally, the costs should be shared by big poultry companies, but that's impossible to accomplish in statewide legislation without the economically important chicken industry fleeing elsewhere. So the agricultural reforms in the governor's plan deal with farmers.

The current system of voluntary nutrient management is neither effective nor accountable. The governor would impose mandatory limits on fertilizer use, including phosphorus, now overlooked in voluntary plans.

This is not, as some lawmakers would have us believe, tantamount to persecuting farmers. It is a rational attempt to deal with a major, indisputable source of bay pollution. The bay simply can't be saved by targeting easy-to-hate offenders like industry and sewage plants while farmers spread tons of fertilizer.

No one wants to see farmers hurt. They will need help. Our biggest question about the governor's plan is whether it includes enough financial aid. Farmers' advocates say the $1 million a year to devise nutrient-management plans, $1 million in tax credits to help offset the cost of regulation and subsidies for cover-crop plantings seem reasonable. But how are farmers supposed to store or dispose of manure if they are required to spread less of it? That's a huge concern. All the governor seeks is money to study manure-disposal methods.

Deadlines are another worry. It would be nice to have all nutrient-management plans in place by 2002, as the governor proposes. But is that realistic? This is uncharted territory for agriculture. An extra year or two seems reasonable. We also would hate to see farmers fined for missing deadlines if they make good-faith efforts to comply. Penalties should be reserved for those who refuse to accept responsibility for protecting the bay from nutrient runoffs.

The debate promises to be bitterly divisive. Yet the bay's viability as a thing of beauty, a source of seafood, a place to work and play and a key piece of Maryland's economic puzzle is a matter of acute importance to all Marylanders.

Environmentalists and agriculturists should not retreat behind their own intractable lines. That selfish strategy would benefit no one, not even themselves.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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