April 11, 2013
Last week, an Agricultural Certainty Bill was approved by the Maryland House and is now making its way through the state Senate. Although the word “agriculture” takes it off most of our radars, this bill is as important to city dwellers as to the farming community. Here’s why we, the non-farmers of Maryland, should care about the Agricultural Certainty Bill: it is really a bill about water quality.
In 2010, the EPA decided to put its foot down and take a stand on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. The water was murky, un-swimmable in parts, fish were dying and the summertime dead zone was big enough to see on Google maps. This was because of nutrient and sediment pollution, and it needed to be fixed. As a solution, the EPA set a “pollution diet” that requires all states to reduce their pollution to fully restore the Bay by 2025. States have control over their own methods for reducing the pollution, but they have to get it done, and they have to complete 60 percent by 2017.
Fast forward to today: the Bay is still polluted, but making progress. Unfortunately, agriculture is one of the main sources of nutrient pollution, accounting for an estimated 37 percent of nitrogen and 48 percent of phosphorous released into the Bay every year, much of it from fertilizer and manure spread on fields. So far, the only solutions to this pollution have been voluntary; this bill is another voluntary solution. The Agricultural Certainty Bill would exempt participating farmers from any new pollution-solving requirements for 10 years if they submit to stricter environmental protection today and allow Maryland Department of Agriculture officials to assess their compliance.
This bill is good for farmers. It will allow them to develop long-term business plans with certainty and without having to quickly change their nutrient management plans every few years as new regulations emerge. Many environmental groups, however, are questioning the bill. How many farmers will participate? Will other industries have to reduce their pollution further to make up for the farms? Are farmers just getting a pass that other industries aren’t? Will Maryland really be able to meet its pollution diet requirements if such a large source of pollution is allowed to stall? Other environmental groups support the bill because farmers would comply to stricter environmental standards sooner. Without the program, farmers might have to constantly adjust to changing regulations, and may not be able to keep up. These groups also support the program’s system to monitor and ensure compliance, so officials will have confirmation that farmers are doing their part.
Whether the program is or is not a great solution to reducing pollution in the Bay, it is a bill that everyone in Maryland should care about. Those of us who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are connected, in one way or another, to agriculture. It, as much as any other industry, impacts our water quality and so will this bill.
Image: Imagery copyright 2013 TerraMetrics. Map data copyright 2013 Google.