Hidden in plain sight

No bay restoration plan can work without dealing with millions of pounds of phosphorus from agricultural manure. Will it happen?

May 17, 2010|By Tom Horton

Entering the fourth decade of a massive effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay's health, how do we keep "hiding" tens of millions of pounds of a well-documented water pollutant? We do it with the complicity of a national network of influential agricultural scientists who care less about water quality than about helping farmers avoid the gigantic disposal problem they face with excess manure.

The dilemma for the watershed's poultry and livestock farmers is stark: To get enough nitrogen on fields to grow a crop, they must spread manure in amounts that build up phosphorus in the soil so excessively that it runs off and pollutes waterways, even if the farmer employs otherwise sound conservation practices.

This has left animal-intensive regions like the Delmarva Peninsula, Lancaster County, Pa., and the Shenandoah Valley with large acreages that should not — if we intend to reduce water pollution — receive manure for years, even decades.

That would leave a surplus estimated at 2 billion to 6 billion pounds of manure to dispose of, according to a new paper by the Water Stewardship, an Annapolis-based nonprofit organization working with farmers to curb pollution from fertilizer. The excess phosphorus in this is in the tens of millions of pounds.

But rather than acknowledge and deal with this problem, a group of agricultural scientists, known as SERA-17, has aggressively promoted measuring phosphorus in farm soils in a way that lets farmers keep spreading too much manure and polluting bay waterways.

The favored tool of SERA-17 is called a Phosphorus Site Index. Used in 47 states, it examines soil textures, slope of farm field, proximity to waterways, fertility and other variables to gauge the potential for phosphorus to escape from a field.

But it's very much a work in progress and was never conceived for water quality protection (its goal is to help farmers use fertilizer effectively). Bureaucrats further dilute the index's value with limits that are too high to safeguard water quality.

This hasn't stopped SERA-17 and its supporters from vigorously defending the higher limits as far back as 1997, when Maryland passed a landmark farm pollution law. And last fall, the group fiercely objected when federal agricultural officials proposed phasing in a simpler test that would drastically reduce manure spreading and water pollution. Farmers would have tested their fields, and if they didn't need more phosphorus to grow a crop, they wouldn't have applied manure.

The resulting manure surplus "would have been a very bad situation for the farmers," Josh McGrath, a University of Maryland agricultural scientist, told the Bay Journal's Rona Kobell. "Is it right to tell people they can't apply phosphorus, if they have this manure they have to dispose of?" McGrath asked.

This indicates where the SERA-17 crowd is really coming from and why it fought last fall's attempt to deal with manure as if the bay mattered. At all costs, they want to protect farmers from having to confront their hidden disposal problem. They want to keep enabling poultry processors to stick chicken growers with the manure from their flocks, claiming it is a "valuable resource." (It is, in places where the phosphorus is not a problem.)

The new Water Stewardship study (http://waterstewardshipinc.org) documents throughout the bay watershed the sad legacy that has resulted from that mindset. It makes clear that the only way to significantly reduce excessive phosphorus pollution from farms is to cease applying manure in many animal-growing regions.

But what do you do, then, with several billion pounds a year of excess manure?

The study notes that farmers are already shipping some to less phosphorus-rich areas; spreading some on pastures; and recycling some through Perdue Poultry's commendable Agricycle plant on the Delmarva Peninsula. That still leaves billions of pounds of excess.

"It would be quite unfair to farmers to just say, 'quit spreading manure tomorrow,'" said Tom Simpson, a soil scientist and head of Water Stewardship.

He thinks the bay states and the federal government need to invest in a five-year transition for farmers, helping them find alternative uses for manure, from making on-farm fuels to burning it in power plants. In a positive sign, the Obama administration's newly released, comprehensive restoration plan for the Chesapeake watershed includes proposals for states to help farmers deal with surplus manure — and for the federal government to step in if states won't or can't take the lead.

Let's hope that's a step toward doing what we must: acknowledge our multimillion-pound phosphorus problem, not hide the truth.

Tom Horton, a freelance writer, covered the Chesapeake Bay for 33 years for The Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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