Maryland Governor Larry Hogan was sworn in earlier today and legislators, farmers, environmentalists, state agency staff, and scientists are waiting with bated breath to see whether he will act on his post-election promise to fight the proposed Phosphorous Management Tool (PMT). The desperately needed regulation would limit the amount of phosphorus-laded chicken manure farmers can spread on their fields.
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for healthy waterways, provided it is present in the right quantity. Too much phosphorus, however, and algae growth explodes, devouring all the oxygen in the water and leading to “dead zones” that cannot support aquatic life. This past summer, the Chesapeake Bay dead zone was the eighth largest since record keeping began. Algae can also be toxic. Phosphorus fueled an outbreak of poisonous algae in Lake Erie last year that forced half a million people in Toledo and the surrounding Ohio communities to temporarily shut off their tap water.
The list of polluted rivers in Maryland is long, and the state has much to lose from not controlling phosphorus pollution. Maryland already derives billions of dollars from the Bay, mainly from tourism, and stands to gain $4.6 billion more annually once the watershed is restored. As part of the Chesapeake Bay-wide pollution diet, a federally led plan to restore the health of the Bay by 2025, Maryland is required to dramatically reduce water pollutants, including phosphorus. It will not be able to do this without dealing with its excess manure problem. As it stands now, Maryland farms contribute 53 percent of the state’s total phosphorus loading to the Bay, and CAFOs make up a significant part of the problem.
To illustrate just how badly new phosphorus regulations are needed, I took a look at farmers’ own records and found that their fields contain far more phosphorus than is needed to fertilize their crops. Of the 60 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in six Eastern Shore counties that submitted a manure-management plan between 2008 and 2014, all but one reported at least one field with excessive soil phosphorus levels. The 60 CAFOs in Dorchester, Talbot, Caroline, Wicomico, Worcester, and Somerset counties took soil samples from 1,022 fields to help plan their fertilization needs over the plan’s five-year term. Of those fields, 803—78 percent—had soil phosphorus levels in the excessive range. Excessive values tell farmers they should not apply additional phosphorus since crops are not able to absorb it and it ends up running off of fields, into streams, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. An interactive map, created with the help of the GIS experts at Chesapeake Commons, illustrates these findings.
The map shows just how saturated the fields are on the Eastern Shore. An Environmental Integrity report, released in conjunction with the map, confirms that farmers continue to apply phosphorus to these oversaturated fields. According to the study, farmers reported applying three times more phosphorus in chicken manure on their fields in 2012 than their crops needed.
For the most part, the overapplication is not intentional. Farmers use an outdated scientific tool for determining the right amount of manure, and no state regulation mandates an update—at least not yet.
After two false starts, Maryland’s outgoing governor Martin O’Malley introduced the phosphorus regulations this past November. Basically, if a farmer uses chicken manure as fertilizer, he or she must apply the right amount to his or her fields. Farmers with excess manure may have to truck some to other areas where fields aren’t saturated or to private facilities that turn poultry manure into energy, fertilizer pellets or other products. Some farmers may have to buy commercial fertilizer to replace the nitrogen from the manure or use mixed-species cover crops to add nitrogen from the atmosphere to the soil. The state would help pay for these costs. Large poultry companies should have a role in helping the small chicken growers comply with this new regulation.
Shortly after being elected, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan announced that rescinding the so-called Phosphorus Management Tool regulations would be his “first fight” in office. Now that he has taken the reins, what he will do about the proposed regulations remains to be seen. To fulfill Maryland’s commitment to restoring the Chesapeake Bay, he should reverse his opposition in the face of overwhelming evidence of phosphorus saturation along the Eastern Shore.