Let's tackle farm runoff

March 19, 1998|By Bill Matuszeski

AFTER listening to the legislative rhetoric circulating in Annapolis about agriculture pollution control, one might conclude that radical steps are being proposed that would place Maryland farmers at an economic disadvantage.

That is simply not the case, which is evident if you look at similar mandatory programs in neighboring states.

Of the three major Chesapeake Bay watershed states -- Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- Maryland is dead last in enforceable authority over agriculture pollution.

The governor's plan

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recently announced proposals for the first time would require farmers to control nutrient-laden runoff from chicken houses that has been linked to outbreaks of Pfiesteria.

Much has been achieved with the state's voluntary approach, but now we know that the intense concentrations of poultry waste in some parts of the bay watershed will require concerted and, perhaps, universal action by farmers and poultry raisers.

There's a lot we can learn from other states. In Pennsylvania, the move to mandatory nutrient management dates back to the early 1990s, when a nutrient-management law was enacted with the support of the agricultural community.

That law requires farm runoff plans wherever large concentrations of farm animals exist.

Large farming operations in Pennsylvania have to pay to have pollution-control plans designed by private businesses. The state provides plans for other farmers.

In Virginia, the legislature recently asked for more study on a proposal requiring state permits for large livestock- and poultry-breeding operations, but two other related efforts have begun.

First, the poultry industry in the Shenandoah Valley agreed two years ago to require all new poultry houses to have nutrient-management plans before opening and to complete plans for all existing houses by 2000.

Second, Virginia has a new agriculture stewardship act that allows a citizen to identify an agricultural "bad actor" who is polluting streams, and sets a deadline for the state to investigate and require a cleanup plan, if necessary.

I am not suggesting such a law for Maryland -- each state needs to develop its own solution appropriate to its citizens and its culture. A "bad actor" law like Virginia's, for example, works well in a state with a long tradition of limited government and private stewardship of the land. But it might not be appropriate here.

However, Maryland could make real progress by emulating its sister states in the Chesapeake watershed in establishing laws to curb farm runoff.

The steps being proposed by Mr. Glendening are not occurring in a vacuum. They will position the state to deal with the Clinton administration's plan for farm runoff, and poultry operations in particular. This will establish a level playing field nationwide for all farmers. The governor's proposals help Maryland play "catch-up ball" in the Chesapeake league.

Bill Matuszeski is director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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