Different paths toward Chesapeake cleanup

About one-third of farms audited by the Maryland Department of Agriculture in 2014 were out of compliance with their nutrient management plans.


Maryland and Delaware may be neighbors, but they are far apart in the way they shield the fragile Chesapeake Bay ecosystem from agricultural pollution, a new federal report concludes.

Maryland’s efforts to reduce nutrient- and sediment-laden runoff into the bay from farms are “robust” and “well implemented,” the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.

The agency released its first comprehensive assessment of how well the six states in the bay’s watershed are regulating animal-raising operations. Agriculture is the leading source of bay pollution, experts say.

Among Maryland’s actions to regulate livestock and poultry operations: requiring the state’s 5,400 farms to draft nutrient management plans, creating setbacks from streams and drafting practices to exclude livestock from waterways.

The EPA wasn’t alone in its praise.

“Maryland clearly remains a leader in reducing pollution from farms,” said Will Baker, president of the Cheapeake Bay Foundation. “Most of the state’s farmers deserve praise.”

But the state’s work isn’t done, the EPA found. About one-third of farms audited by the Maryland Department of Agriculture in 2014 were out of compliance with their nutrient management plans. Most were expired or were outdated.

Those audits led to 211 warnings to fix major violations. Agriculture officials went on to fine 33 farms a total of $21,450 for failing to take action in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, Delaware’s voluntary program to encourage farmers to reduce runoff may not go far enough to meet the Chesapeake cleanup targets for reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, the EPA declared.

Ultimately, Delaware agricultural and environmental officials may need to develop new policies or explore mandatory compliance with on-farm best management practices to conform with the bay cleanup initiative, the report concluded.

Among the issues: The state’s cleanup program relies heavily on cost-share programs such as subsidies for off-farm transport of poultry manure and funding to plant cover crops.

Both techniques are seen as tried and true methods to reduce agricultural runoff into ditches, creeks and streams that lead to Chesapeake Bay. But there is limited money available.

“We made a lot of progress” with the voluntary program, said Bridgeville-area farmer William Vanderwende, who chairs the state’s Nutrient Management Commission. “We don’t have very many bad actors. ... We’re not going to change course.”

In all, the review found that 1,072 farms in the state fall under Delaware’s voluntary Nutrient Management Act. Farmers develop plans for how they will manage manure and fertilizers. The plans are private under a state Freedom of Information Act exemption in the law, but the farm operations are subject to inspection and review. State agriculture officials inspect about 82 animal feed and farm operations every year.

Chickens – especially raising broilers from days-old birds to market size over about six weeks – are the heart of Delaware’s animal agriculture industry. After a 15.4 percent production slump between 2007 and 2012, the industry is expected to grow again over the next five years, the review found. An estimated 80 new chicken houses are expected to be built in Delaware between 2015 and 2020.

That growth will mean that state and federal officials will have to work harder to protect the bay, Baker said in a statement.

“Programs in West Virginia and Delaware were falling far behind in issuing permits to these facilities. The pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is a regional issue, and only EPA is charged with taking a regional view. The EPA must hold all states accountable to the commitments each made as part of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint,” he said.

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