August 1, 2014

Chesapeake Bay: Why Are the Waters Still Murky?

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Chesapeake Bay dead zone, 2013

Chesapeake Bay dead zone, 2013

“Making progress but coming up short.” That seems to be the oft-used line when people talk about efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay—although even this mild assessment is a bone of contention.

The debate

In a recent progress report (June 2014), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) touted its progress in Bay restoration but acknowledged the shortfall: “All of the jurisdictions continue to make progress in the various sectors,” said Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin. “Our assessments also point out that their work over the next two years will have to accelerate in some areas.”

Meanwhile, two new reports (July 2014) by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) suggest that the EPA is engaged in some magical thinking. In particular, says the EIP, over the last decade there’s been no real improvement in reducing the pollution that comes from farms. While the agency declares that it’s on track, the EIP says the state of Maryland should move forward on a stalled piece of legislation that could help manage farm pollution.

What is farm pollution?

In the context of the Eastern Shore and the water it supplies to the Chesapeake Bay, “farm pollution” means phosphorus and nitrogen, which in small enough amounts are nutrients but when used in excess become pollutants. Of particular interest is phosphorus, which is found in abundance in the phosphate-rich chicken manure generated by the Eastern Shore’s more than 1,300 chicken farms—if “farm” is an appropriate word for an industrial poultry operation. The poultry operations produce 523 million chickens annually and generate more than 1 billion pounds of manure every year, and one way that farmers manage it is by spreading it on cropland. Eventually, the polluting phosphates in the manure find their way to the Bay and create algal blooms, which then create dead zones where aquatic life cannot survive.

What is the Phosphorus Management Tool?

The legislation in question is called the Phosphorus Management Tool, or PMT. At its simplest, it’s an equation that uses data from farm soil and water to calculate how much phosphorus is being released into the environment by a particular field or farm. The data is gathered by testing for phosphorus in farm surface runoff, sub-surface discharge, and particulate matter; the original algorithm was created by USDA, and the University of Maryland Extension custom-made a version for Maryland. At first, a proposal to use the PMT made some headway in the state legislature, but the administration of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has delayed it.

“The farm lobby opposed it, and the administration parked it,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the EIP and formerly a director at EPA. If the legislation passed, the PMT would help locate phosphorus “hot spots” on the Eastern Shore so they could be targeted for more immediate action.

One of the big problems in the lower Eastern Shore, said Schaeffer, is the historic pollution load. There’s so much phosphorus in the soil already that the soil can’t take on any more. The poultry industry insists that this legacy phosphorus will make it difficult to see improvement soon, regardless of soil conservation measures. “It will take time to see improvement,” Schaeffer said. “There’s some truth to that.”

What the PMT would achieve is more sophisticated monitoring. For example, by taking more water samples in streams that are close to poultry operations, monitors could find spikes in phosphorus and might be able to correlate those spikes to the spreading of chicken manure on cropland. In this way, the PMT would help to identify farms that seem to be contributing more heavily to the phosphorus load. Naturally, this prospect makes the poultry industry nervous.

The poultry industry’s role

The three main pollutants in the Bay are the “nutrients” phosphorus and nitrogen, and sediment. And while a good deal of that pollution comes from overflowing municipal wastewater management systems, i.e., sewage plants, quite a bit of that pollution comes from agriculture. More than half of the phosphorus in the Bay comes from agriculture, according to the EPA. In the Eastern Shore rivers, which feed the Bay, that number’s higher: between two-thirds and 85 percent of the phosphorus comes from farms.

The pollution that comes from sewage plants is easy to track, because the pollution literally pours out of pipes that drain into bodies of water; this is called “point source pollution,” because it can be measured at specific points (the pipes). But the “nonpoint source pollution” that comes from farms is difficult to track because there’s no single outlet; it’s simply not possible to track and measure all the phosphates accumulated in the 1 billion pounds of manure generated every year by 1,339 poultry operations.

“The Farm Bureau is pretty hostile to the PMT,” said Schaeffer. But agriculture could be a part of the solution. “Farmers care about the environment,” he says. Some poultry operations have implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs)—such as cover crops and riparian buffers (areas near streams that are planted with trees or grasses)—aimed at curbing the flow of phosphorus into the Bay. Unfortunately, those BMPs don’t seem to be working very well. With the legacy load of phosphorus, cover crops won’t work (they simply can’t take up enough), but there are other practices that could, such as better controlling the spreading of manure in winter. The PMT would provide clues about which BMPs work better than others and allow for some accountability for the tax dollars being spent.

In all of this, the elephant in the room is the question of what will happen if more sophisticated monitoring systems (such as PMT) identify bad actors in the phosphorus pollution story. Bob Martin, director of the Food System Policy program at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, said this: “Maryland taxpayers fund chicken waste storage and efforts to transport it out of the Delmarva Peninsula to the tune of about $28 million annually. The millions of chickens jammed into this small geographic area produce about 42 million cubic feet of waste a year, enough to fill the dome of the United States Capitol weekly. Clearly, the land was never intended to handle so much waste.”

The long-term dilemma is whether a real solution is possible with the current population of chickens on the Eastern Shore. “The best solution is to reduce the broiler density on the peninsula. Otherwise, the soil quality will be continually degraded by phosphorus overload until it is no longer productive,” says Martin.

Background on the politics and pollution

The PMT was withdrawn by the Maryland Department of Agriculture in November. There is some concern that Gov. O’Malley has conflicting allegiances, as this Baltimore Sun editorial points out. The concern is that as a potential 2016 presidential candidate campaigning in Iowa, a Big Ag state, Gov. O’Malley must play nice with industry while also protecting his state’s valuable natural resources.

Further complicating the issue of restoration, politicians from all over the U.S., from as far as Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Alaska, are fighting the EPA in its Chesapeake Bay efforts. Leading the charge against the cleanup is the conservative farm lobby group the American Farm Bureau Federation. In 2011, it filed a suit against the EPA aimed at stopping the cleanup program. As stated in the amicus brief, the mostly-Republican politicians and attorneys general object to the cleanup on the grounds that, if it is left to stand, “other watersheds, including the Mississippi River Basin, could be next.”

Leading the charge are Sen. Pat Toomey (R–Penn.), Sen. David Vitter (R–La.), Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–Va.), and Rep. Frank Lucas (R–Okla.). There has been some pushback, though. This Baltimore Sun story reports on the pact signed by governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray, and Ronald E. Miller, a Pennsylvania state representative, to support the EPA’s effort.

Restoration history

In some form or another, there have been efforts to clean up the Bay for almost 30 years, none of which have been particularly successful. The restoration effort got more urgent when, in 2009, President Obama signed an executive order to fix the problem. That’s when the EPA became more aggressive and relied on the Clean Water Act to limit waste flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. What’s complicated about invoking the Clean Water Act is that the waste that comes from sewage plants, or “point source pollution,” is regulated under the Clean Water Act; “nonpoint source pollution,” like the phosphorus and nitrogen that come from farms, is not.

Three major rivers supply 80 percent of the Bay’s freshwater: the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James. On the Eastern Shore, the Choptank River watershed is a major supplier to the Bay, and the Choptank, Chester, Nanticoke, and Pocomoke rivers are considered major tributaries to the nation’s largest estuary. Other Eastern Shore rivers that feed the Bay are the Wicomico, Manokin, Transquaking and Sassafras.

Image: TerraMetrics. Map data copyright 2013 Google.

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