WITH FACTORIES and sewage-treatment plants mostly under federal regulation and permit, the key cause of water pollution is now the elusive nonpoint source: runoff of contaminants that flows off farms, lawns and streets into waterways, promoting the growth of harmful algae and a loss of oxygen for aquatic life.
It's often difficult to quantify, coming as it does from no specific discharge point. But the sources of this significant pollution need to be brought under control if the Chesapeake Bay and other U.S. waters are to achieve their cleanup goals.
A major source of runoff pollution comes from farms, particularly large livestock feedlots that produce much more manure than they can practically use for crop fertilizer.
Excessive concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus from animal waste find their way into the waterways, causing as much harm as untreated sewage.
While Maryland wrestles with legislation in Annapolis to control polluting runoff from its farms, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is moving to regulate the nation's livestock feedlots. Manure-management plans and pollution-discharge permits would be required of 6,500 large animal-raising operations within four years.
It's an overdue effort that was finally spurred, as EPA Administrator Carol Browner noted, by the outbreak of the toxic Pfiesteria microorganism in the Chesapeake Bay and in North Carolina.
Targeting the largest feedlots initially, EPA officials hope to send a message to the states to implement their own agricultural runoff control programs, especially programs that are aimed at livestock megafarms.
Maryland is ahead of most states in examining the farm-runoff problem and trying to craft effective remedies to curb nonpoint-source water pollution from chicken, hog and cattle operations.
Failure to reduce increasingly concentrated livestock waste puts the health of fish and humans at risk. The federal permit program would help prevent major livestock producers from shopping for states with lax pollution controls.
It levels the playing field, emphasizing the interstate nature of the farm-runoff problem and the national scope of concern, from California cattle feedlots to Delmarva chicken farms.
Pub Date: 3/16/98