Officials aim to simplify laws on agricultural runoff into bay

Some contentious issues addressed, but farmers fear additional paperwork

December 09, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Delivering on a campaign promise to give farmers more of a voice in Maryland government, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration yesterday unveiled plans to simplify state regulation of agricultural runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

The proposed changes to Maryland's nutrient management laws, presented at the Maryland Farm Bureau's annual meeting here, would eliminate some of the program's most contentious elements but ensure that farmers still limit their use of fertilizers and manure, administration officials said.

"We're not backing away from any responsibility," said Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "This plan is still about agriculture making sure we do our share to help improve water quality for the Chesapeake Bay."

Environmentalists generally praised the proposal - presented the day before the 20th anniversary of the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement - and agreed that it does not back away from the intent of the 1998 law to reduce nutrient runoff.

"There's no reduction as far as enforcement or the ability of the state to enter property with proper notice," said Theresa Pierno, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Our issue continues to be, `Let's move forward now.' Those nutrient-management plans need to be done immediately, and we need to see implementation. We're already behind on the schedule."

Some farmers criticized the plan for failing to address all of their concerns, particularly with paperwork and red tape. Some even suggested the proposed changes could force them to complete more forms than they do now.

"Somehow, this got contorted into the worst of both worlds," said Henry Moreland III, who owns a 600-acre grain farm in Caroline County. "The way I view it, we're going backward because you've increased our regulatory burden."

Farm Bureau leaders said they hope to discuss the plan further today at conference meetings and vote tomorrow on whether to support it.

"I would expect we will have a very spirited discussion about this," said Steve Weber, a Baltimore County farmer and president of the Farm Bureau.

He refused to predict the outcome, though. "The paperwork burden is still big, but I think there's room for agreement on this. We certainly appreciate the efforts being made by the administration to work with the farm community," he said.

Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley acknowledged the farmers' concerns but said their support is ultimately needed if changes are to be passed by the General Assembly.

Leaders of the legislature's two environmental committees were briefed on the plans and gave their tentative support, Powell said. Although farmers might want additional changes, he said, the Republican administration wanted "a sale-able proposal" that could win support from the Democratic legislature.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said she agreed with efforts to help farmers meet the state requirements of managing nutrient runoff on their fields.

"Farmers in Maryland are very willing and embrace the need to participate in being part of the solution," the Baltimore Democrat said. "What we need to do is make it easier for farmers to comply."

Farm runoff has been a particularly big issue since the summer of 1997, when an outbreak of a fish-killing bacteria known as Pfiesteria piscicida prompted legislation requiring stringent nutrient management plans for agricultural fields.

Nutrient runoff, particularly phosphorus, was blamed for the bacteria's rapid growth. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is also linked to algae blooms that deplete the bay's supply of oxygen and create areas of water unhealthy for marine life.

In Maryland, the two largest sources of nutrient pollution in the bay are wastewater treatment plants and the overuse of fertilizer, particularly manure. Much of that manure comes from the 500 million chickens raised on the Eastern Shore each year. Maryland and the other states in the bay watershed have agreed to cut nutrient runoff in half by 2010.

About two-thirds of the 1.6 million farming acres in the state are covered by nutrient-management plans submitted by the farmers, according to Powell. About 19 percent are in the process of developing plans, and about 15 percent have ignored the requirements. State officials believe about 9,000 farms are subject to the law.

The Ehrlich administration plan evolved from recommendations made this summer during an all-day summit attended by more than 250 farmers.

From the time of the original 1998 law, farmers have complained most loudly about being forced to sign a "right of entry" agreement permitting state inspectors to enter their farms without notice.

Although the latest Ehrlich proposal would eliminate that agreement, the state would maintain the right to inspect farms to ensure nutrient plans are being followed. But the state would have to provide 48-hour notice of inspections, and farmers could be present when inspectors are on site - changes that seemed to win universal support from farmers.

Nor would farmers have to submit extensive management plans to the state each year. Instead, they would be asked to submit year-end reports showing how much fertilizer and manure they used and outlining intended changes for the next growing season, keeping other paperwork on their farms.

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