Report on bay targets farmers

Ideas for restoring health include soil conservation, nutrient management

3-state panel hears proposals

Critics say findings neglect population problems

September 10, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A new report suggesting the best and cheapest ways for Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay directs nearly all of its recommendations at farmers.

The staff of the Chesapeake Bay Commission presented its findings yesterday to the panel, made up of legislators from the three states.

The report concluded that farmers who manage nutrients and conserve soil are the most cost-effective hope for restoring the ailing bay.

"We basically asked the question, `Which practices would deliver the largest result for the least cost?'" said commission Executive Director Ann P. Swanson. "And what we tried to do was have the guts to say, `Let the cards fall where they will.'"

The report is based on a review of 34 "best management practices" that federal environmental officials have said could help curb the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment clogging the bay. The commission staff selected seven as the most cost-effective practices available.

Six involved agriculture; one, a recommendation to curb nitrogen at sewage treatment plants, addressed the effect of population growth on the watershed.

The six agriculture strategies include common practices such as planting cover crops like winter wheat to absorb nutrients and tilling soil with an eye toward minimal disturbance. But they also recommend some newer methods, such as reducing the diet of farm animals so they produce less manure and encouraging farmers to plant grass crops instead of row crops, a technique known as carbon sequestration.

Commissioners agreed to discuss the report again today. If the panel agrees to endorse the report, its findings would likely influence environmental policy in the three states.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Russell H. Fairchild, a Republican, said he expects tough questions about the report's conclusions from his rural constituents, who might wonder why they are being targeted while a 400-home subdivision gets a pass.

"They might ask, `What about that tanker truck that comes into the subdivision and sprays fertilizer on the yard?'" Fairchild said.

"And they deserve an answer."

But Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican farmer from Maryland's Eastern Shore and the commission's chairman, said he was surprised that the panel hesitated in adopting the report.

"I thought it would pass pretty handily," he said. "I didn't expect that level of concern."

Departure for panel

The report is a departure from the commission's usual practice of choosing one target each from areas such as urban runoff, sediment control or wastewater treatment plants and making a recommendation.

Instead, Swanson and her staff decided to choose what they saw as the best seven, regardless of the sector they affected.

The report includes no cost figures. Swanson said that assessing a price wasn't the goal and would be hard to determine because some of the measures would save money in the long term.

Nor does it outline who would pay for implementation, though the study and commission members made it clear that the costs would not be passed on to the farmers.

Not attack on farmers

"This report could be spun into a 30-second attack ad on agriculture. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr., a Democrat who represents the rural northern neck of Virginia in that state's legislature.

Some commission members were concerned that the report did not address urban air pollution, runoff from development or any of the other population-control issues that factor into the bay's troubles.

The staff replied that, although such urban tools are crucial to restoring the bay's health, they are also expensive to implement and are not necessarily cost-effective.

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