Nearly a decade ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation decided that the best way to save the bay was to extend a hand to its biggest polluter - the crop and poultry farmers who apply large amounts of fertilizer to the land.
The alliance between the region's largest environmental group and the powerful farm lobby has helped bring millions of dollars in new anti-pollution funds to the bay watershed - and, the foundation says, improved the odds that the Chesapeake will one day be restored.
But many environmental advocates question the foundation's friendly approach. They say that tough regulations, not just incentives, are needed to force farmers to control pollution.
"I've never seen an industry cooperatively clean up its mess," said Scott Edwards, legal director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national watchdog group that has sued farmers and state agriculture departments over pollution issues. "Industry only responds to force."
The bay foundation's unusual approach was evident last month when the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley revised its proposed rules on pollution-control permits for poultry farmers. Instead of requiring permits for 200 poultry operations, the administration scaled back to about half that number after farmers complained that the rules were onerous.
While many other environmental groups railed against the O'Malley administration, bay foundation officials called the revised rules "a step forward."
Foundation President William Baker said last week that while he wished the regulations were stronger, the revised proposal is a good start for a state that has no poultry-discharge rules now.
"The way to make them more effective at reducing pollution is to show that they're workable, show that they will not unfairly put the farmer at financial risk, and show there is financial support to pay for them," Baker said of the new rules. "Let's show they work, and that they can work even better if they're improved."
But Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, an environmental advocate who is concerned that the proposed rules are not strict enough, said that it is never prudent to accept weaker measures and hope that they'll become stronger.
"I don't think we should settle for less at the beginning of the debate, because the political process is going to make us settle for less anyway," said Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat.
Nationally, many major environmental groups working to combat farm pollution favor sticks over carrots. In Iowa, the Environmental Integrity Project is trying to force the state to regulate pollution from animal farms. In Pennsylvania, the group PennFuture has pressed the state to enforce farm pollution laws.
But in reacting to Maryland's proposed farm pollution rules, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's only comments were to ask whether the financial interests of farmers would be protected. For instance, the foundation's senior scientist, Jenn Aiosa, asked whether public money would be available to help farmers pay for required pollution control plans. And she took issue with a proposal to compel farmers to check soil and water samples for contamination.
The O'Malley administration is accepting comments on its latest proposal and is expected to release final rules in the fall.
For much of its 40-year existence, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation did not try to court farmers as it tried to educate the public and lobby for laws to clean up the estuary. The foundation's approach changed in the late 1990s, when an outbreak in the Pocomoke River of a toxic algae, Pfiesteria, was linked to runoff from poultry farms.
Environmentalists clamored for tougher anti-pollution laws, while farmers complained that they were being over-regulated to the point that they would be forced to close down. Eventually, the General Assembly required farmers to file plans detailing how much fertilizer they were using.
Baker said the foundation began to realize that if the farms went out of business, large developments probably would replace them - bringing impervious surfaces that would promote suburban runoff and be far worse for the bay.
"We decided at that point that we needed to earn the trust of farmers, to show them we didn't want to put them out of business," Baker said.
The foundation has a staff of 170 and a $22 million budget, much of it used for education and restoration work such as planting wetlands. Foundation officials said they do not get money from the farm industry.
While the group has sued local and federal governments over water-quality issues, its efforts with respect to farmers have mostly centered on securing more money for pollution-reducing practices. The foundation pushed to get money in the latest federal farm bill, which passed with an unprecedented $400 million for bay cleanup efforts.