Pollution controls needed to save the bay [Commentary]

Farm manure and stormwater runoff are major pollutants blocking bay recovery

December 15, 2013|By Gerald W. Winegrad

Thirty years ago, the governors in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the mayor of D.C.; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, solemnly pledging to stem the flow of pollutants and bring the bay into compliance with the Clean Water Act. As a state senator, I optimistically witnessed this event and thought the job would be done in a decade.

But today — after more detailed pledges to reduce nutrients, sediment and toxic chemicals — we are still far from meeting these commitments. The EPA was forced by a lawsuit to finally set enforceable pollution limits, but state and local governments continue to balk at these requirements. Of particular concern is the failure to adopt meaningful measures to address the major pollution sources blocking bay recovery: agriculture and stormwater runoff from developed lands.

At few times in history has a country been able to produce enough food that we can feed our nation and still have huge surpluses for export and even use 40 percent of our corn crop for ethanol to fuel our cars. This agricultural productivity comes with a huge cost — substantial and widespread environmental degradation, including the massive clearing of forests and the drainage of tens of millions of acres of wetlands.

With the Green Revolution, much more intensive farming with modern chemical fertilizers and pesticides began in the second half of the 20th century. This production agriculture has led to massive doses of excess nutrients and sediment running into streams, making agriculture the largest source of pollutants choking our waterways.

Flows of nutrients, sediment and toxic chemicals in stormwater runoff from developed land are the major pollutant source in most developed areas, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County. Each time it rains, millions of gallons of polluted water flow downhill into storm drains untreated to the nearest stream. Stormwater pollution is the only pollution source that has increased since the first Bay Agreement.

The results of the failure to properly address farm and stormwater pollutants are massive dead zones, algae blooms, fish kills, human and animal disease, smothered oyster bars, decimated bay grasses and declining fisheries.

We have done a good job in reducing nutrients through the Flush Tax. The $1.4 billion generated is used to remove most wastewater nutrients. Despite claims of political and industry spin-meisters to the contrary, let's be crystal clear: Farm pollution is still a major problem, and we are not close to implementing the necessary and cost-effective best management practices in agriculture, and regulation of farm chemicals is still lax and ineffective.

The recent withdrawal by the O'Malley administration of science-based regulations to prevent farmers from dumping phosphorus and nitrogen laden chicken and other manures on farm fields already saturated with phosphorus is another example of this fecklessness. Maryland had pledged to the EPA to adopt this phosphorus reduction tool by 2011. The legislature passed a law prohibiting applications of phosphorus containing fertilizers on lawns and golf courses which already contain sufficient phosphorus, and Maryland has strictly regulated treated human wastewater biosolids since 1985, including a ban on applications to phosphorus enriched soils. But farm manure and fertilizers escape this vigorous regulation.

The state and local governments have made a haphazard effort to fund stormwater pollution upgrades, but we must pay the price for past poor development practices allowed by local governments. Even the weak state mandates are under attack, and a few counties have thumbed their noses at the requirements without consequence.

There need to be polluter-pays provisions parallel to the bold Flush Tax, enacted under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for agricultural and stormwater pollution. We clearly know where the pollutants come from and how to reduce them; sadly what is lacking is the political will to act to staunch the flow from agriculture and stormwater. The decline of the bay is but one hidden price we all pay for this failure.

Gerald W. Winegrad is a former Maryland state senator who sponsored or managed much of the bay legislation of the 1980s and early 1990s and has taught graduate courses on the Chesapeake Bay.


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