Governor seeks 500% boost in money to cut farm runoff

Bill to seek delay in implementation of Water Quality Act

January 26, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is seeking a 500 percent increase in the amount of money going to farmers to pay for nutrient-management plans.

The request comes shortly after a flurry of last-minute activity among farmers to meet a December 2001 deadline either to have a plan to control farm runoff or to have filed for an extension as they complete their plans.

Despite the rush to meet the deadline, the Department of Agriculture reports that it has not heard from 36 percent of the Maryland farms that are covered by regulations stemming from the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998.

Just 20 percent of the farms met the original deadline to have plans written by the end of last year.

The General Assembly approved the Water Quality Act after farm runoff was suspected of causing Pfiesteria piscicida and fish kills in 1997, resulting in the closing of portions of three Maryland waterways, triggering panic over the safety of Maryland seafood and disrupting the state tourism industry.

The legislation has been very controversial within the farm community, with at least some farmers insisting that they will go to jail before they will have a nutrient-management plan.

Some argue that there has never been scientific proof that farm runoff caused the fish kills.

"The farm community thinks the implementation of the act needs to be extended by two years," said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm organization, which serves 14,000 families.

Connelly said the infrastructure is not in place for farmers to meet the new regulations. "There are not enough certified planners to write the plans," she said.

She said a bill to gain a two-year delay will be introduced in the current legislative session.

At its convention last year, the Farm Bureau changed its position from seeking an appeal of the Water Quality Act to favoring a delay in implementation of the regulations.

Royden N. Powell 3rd, assistant secretary at the Agriculture Department, said he doesn't think a delay is necessary.

Powell said the department will be taking steps in coming months to help farmers with plans, including starting a program where farmers can write their own plans after passing a competency test administered by the department.

The governor's funding request would increase the amount of money to help pay for farm plans from $216,000 a year to $1.3 million for fiscal year beginning July 1.

He is also seeking $500,000 to help pay for the planting of cover crops to control the nutrient runoff from farms and another $700,000 to pay for the transportation of excess animal manure off farms.

Powell said the department will seek to contact farmers that have not adopted a nutrient-management plan or sought a delay.

He said farmers will be given "every opportunity to comply," and as a last resort the department will enact the fines of up to $2,000 per year outlined in the law.

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