Compromise on farm runoff Guns' legislation: It reflects concerns of farmers and impact of agriculture on the bay.

March 03, 1998

THE BILL EMERGING from the House Environmental Matters Committee on control of agricultural runoff pollution is a good compromise on a contentious issue. It shows understanding for farmers, yet reflects the reality that strong steps must be taken to protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Originally the bill, sponsored by Chairman Ron Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, would have retained the system of voluntary control of nutrient pollution. Mr. Guns, an ardent defender of the farming community, pitted himself against Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who wants mandatory plans to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, which causes harmful, oxygen-destroying algae blooms in the bay and is suspected of provoking toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks in bay tributaries.

On that point, the governor is right. Only 68 percent of farmers have voluntary nutrient-management plans -- a shockingly low rate. All farmers must reduce fertilizer runoff.

Mr. Guns backed down on a voluntary compliance program because he didn't have the votes. His amended bill would require farmers to adopt plans to control nitrogen runoff by 2003 and phosphorus by 2006. Given the intensity of farmers' opposition to regulation, this was a critical, difficult concession.

His compromise bill is better legislation than the governor's. We worry that Mr. Glendening's proposal -- nitrogen management plans by 2002; phosphorus plans by 2004 -- doesn't give farmers enough time. Phosphorus management is a new science. Until recently, phosphorus was not believed capable of leaching into the water. And if farmers are expected to spread less fertilizer, something must be done with the remaining manure. That problem remains.

Farmers complain about a lack of funds for soil technicians and other support services, a problem addressed in the Guns bill. With a hefty budget surplus, the governor should be able to provide such resources this year.

The more important -- and expensive -- issue is long-term disposal. State officials and the agriculture community must explore options such as poultry litter-fueled power plants, which are being used successfully in England and which AAI Corp. of Cockeysville wants to build here. Yes, it would take a sizable public subsidy to get such a plant running. But the benefits of finding a constructive use for such a troublesome pollutant are worth it.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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