Fear of `blame' stifles honesty about pollution

ON THE BAY

Runoff: Some don't want to hear it, but a cost-effective cleansing of the Chesapeake begins with agriculture.

September 24, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HERE'S what I wish I could tell farmers about agriculture's role in the sad state of the Chesapeake Bay:

"Yes, the runoff of fertilizers and manure and sediment from farmland is the largest source of pollution. But farms are shrinking while development is expanding with no end in sight. Growth and development is what we really must focus on to clean up the bay.

"After all, you guys have been farming for centuries, but it's only as population doubled in recent decades that the bay's water quality and sea grass habitats have crashed."

Indeed, looking at the long term, I'd go further and propose Horton's Hypothesis: Rapid, unending population growth makes all environmental progress temporary.

But in the here and now, in the third decade of a multistate and federal restoration effort for the Chesapeake that is showing minimal progress, the numbers say different.

They say an immediate focus on agricultural pollution is among the best ways to move off the dime.

That's the message from both a two-year Smithsonian study and another recent report -- a report that the public might never see. It was produced for the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which is composed of alleged environmental leaders among the legislatures of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The report, produced by some of the bay region's best environmental thinkers, was done to highlight pollution sources where targeting scarce cleanup dollars will have the biggest bang per buck, and have it sooner rather than later.

It specified, in no particular order, six areas associated with farming, and one involving sewage treatment plants.

Unfortunately the commission's legislators, particularly those from rural, agricultural areas, chose to treat this as "blaming" agriculture -- ironic since the purpose was to direct money to help farmers deal with pollution problems.

The legislators, who put the report on hold, want it to say more about the pollution from power plants, cars and urban runoff. All of these are real problems and must be resolved to fully restore the bay.

But to revise the report to make it a politically correct broadsheet of all the bay's ills, so no one feels "blamed," would risk years of more inaction and squandering cleanup funds.

Consider, for example, the Patuxent River, the most urbanized of the bay's tributaries, a place where rapid development throughout Central Maryland overwhelmed the river with sewage during the 1970s and 1980s.

Cropland covers a mere 10 percent of the river's basin. Developed lands now cover more than 30 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. If there is anyplace in the bay's six-state watershed that you'd expect cleanup money might emphasize development over agriculture, it's the Patuxent.

Or so you'd think. But lots of money already has been spent to cleanse sewage. In a wet year, when land runoff of pollution is high, sewage contributes less than a fourth of the river's nitrogen and less than 10 percent of its phosphorus. Even in a dry year, sewage is less than half the river's nitrogen and about a third of its phosphorus.

As for land runoff, Smithsonian researchers Tom Jordan and Don Weller monitored such rain-driven discharges from parts of the Patuxent basin for two years in the late 1990s (a wet year and a dry one, as it happened).

They found that cropland was leaking nitrogen to the river at a rate two or three times as great, per acre, as developed land; and nearly six times as much phosphorus per acre.

"The old word on the Patuxent was that point sources [i.e. sewage] was the key -- fix them and you're done," says Walter Boynton, a University of Maryland scientist who has spent his career studying the river. "But that's just not the case. This says agriculture is still really important."

Jordan, Boynton and others emphasize that no one is saying to ignore the pollution from growth and development -- or that paving over farmland is the way to reduce pollution.

But the numbers say ag pollution is critical, even in a relatively nonagricultural part of the bay. Other numbers developed by the EPA also say it's more expensive per acre to attack urban runoff than to help farmers clean up. "Dollar for dollar, ag reductions are a `better buy' than urban reductions," says Rich Batiuk, an EPA scientist.

Though development is more visible, farming has changed drastically during the decades in which the bay has become polluted. Use of fertilizers has doubled or tripled, and livestock and poultry have become concentrated in greater densities, creating widespread problems with manure runoff.

One would hope the Bay Commission shows some leadership and approves its report without much revision by its November meeting. After 21 years of bay restoration, we should be past the stage where agricultural interests play the "blame" card when people are trying to get them money to do their part.

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