Issue: April 2014
Bay Journal: Phosphorus Fight, Round Two

by Rona Kobell

Delegates and Senators have introduced five bills that seek to delay rules that restrict the use of phosphorus—which is to say, chicken manure—by Maryland farmers by at least one year. The legislators behind the bills also hope for further economic analysis of the damage that phosphorus restrictions could have on Eastern Shore poultry farmers—whose operations depend heavily on selling their chicken manure to local farmers.

The bills largely hit the same points, and the environmental community has geared up to oppose them all. The Maryland Department of Agriculture is officially opposing at least one of the bills, claiming that it would not allow the department to do anything until the legislature meets again in 2015. Also opposing the legislative effort are scientists at the University of Maryland, who have spent the past five years trying to build a tool that looks at all pathways phosphorus uses to reach the Chesapeake. They have written letters to the legislature affirming the need for the management tool and the use of the more aggressive “phosphorus index” for specific farms and fields.

The fight over phosphorus and how to control it has been a bitter one. Maryland has used a phosphorus index since 2005. The index takes into account variety of factors—topography, phosphorus levels in the soil, the farm’s history, its proximity to waterways and ditches—to give a field its score. If a field scored below 100, the farmer could apply phosphorus without too much worry. Of course they don’t actually “apply phosphorus”; they apply manure—chicken manure, to be exact, which is loaded with phosphorus. If the farm scored above 100, the farmer could still apply chicken manure—as long as he added some “best-management practices,” like stream buffers, to reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into the water.

Many environmentalists complained that the index had too many shortcomings. Farms that scored high in phosphorus, for example, were permitted to apply more, in part because they could bring down their score with best-management practices—even if those methods didn’t do what they were supposed to do.

Scientists agreed the index could be improved. Joshua McGrath of the University of Maryland began working on a more robust index, which he introduced to farmers last year—and which, scientists hoped, would help meet the federally mandated nutrient TMDL (total maximum daily load or “pollution diet,” as it’s often called) goals that went into effect last year.

Some farmers were shocked at McGrath’s new calculations. According to his numbers, half of the farms on the Eastern Shore had reached their saturation point and could not take any more phosphorus. This news had immediate implications: chicken farmers had no takers for their manure, and the men who were hired to clean out chicken houses suddenly had full loads of manure in their trucks and no place to take it.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture acknowledged the difficulties, but said it was pressing ahead to make the new index a part of modern agriculture in the state. It wanted to implement the index through emergency regulation, but decided to switch to the routine and slower regulatory process after farmers objected. Then the process bogged down as farmers protested. The department made several concessions to the agriculture community, including setting up temporary manure storage facilities and promising to invest millions of dollars in manure-to-energy technology. But in late 2013 the department decided to simply pull the phosphorus regulations from the rule-making process amid the outcry from farmers.

Department officials said they have not given up on the phosphorus management tool. They have written letters to the legislature on its importance as a tool to help manage farms and reduce phosphorus entering the Chesapeake. Agriculture officials and environmentalists often find themselves on opposite sides of big issues, including the Agricultural Certainty debate of 2013 and many of the nutrient management rules.

But in this case, they are on the same side; both wanting a robust phosphorus index and both arguing that scientists and policy makers together should be making the phosphorus regulations as strong as they can be. Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance said in a recent interview that department is sensitive to the economic implications of the index and does want to do a study in hopes of mitigating some of the hurt.

Rona Kobell, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, is a staff writer at Bay Journal. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.