Both Farmers & Environmentalists Concerned as Phosphorus Limits Ramp Up

Bay Journal article (2018-11-28) reported that as regulations limiting the amount of phosphorus that can be applied to farmland are fully phased in, both farmers and environmentalists are expressing concerns about the potential consequences. Farmers are concerned about the problem of disposing of phosphorus-rich poultry litter that has traditionally been used as a fertilizer and the high cost of alternative fertilizers. Environmentalists are concerned about improving the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries and ensuring the State is adequately monitoring the implementation of the phosphorus requirements.

Phosphorus is a necessary nutrient for crops but if too much builds up in the soils, it can run off into the Bay and its waterways, causing algae blooms and increasing the Bay’s oxygen “dead zone” where fish and shellfish cannot survive. The problem is particularly acute on the Eastern Shore, especially the Lower Shore, where high-phosphorus poultry litter has been used as fertilizer for many decades. In response, Governor Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly in 2015 agreed to a set of phased-in phosphorus limits, collectively referred to as the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT).

The PMT reduces phosphorus runoff  from farms that have a high concentration of phosphorus in their soils by limiting the amount of manure or phosphorus-containing fertilizers the farms can use. The article noted that while only 100 farms have been affected so far, the number of affected farms is set to jump significantly in 2019. When the PMT is fully phased-in in 2022, it will apply to roughly 228,000 acres over 1,661 farms.

The article explored the concerns of both farmers, some of whom feel the PMT implementation should be put on hold temporarily, and environmentalists, who do not want the implementation interrupted and feel tighter monitoring and transparency is needed. From the article:

Virgil Shockley, who raises chickens, corn and soybeans near Snow Hill in Worcester County, called it “a potential disaster in the making.” The restrictions couldn’t come at a worse time, he said. Growers are struggling financially with the poorest harvest they’ve had in a long time because of unrelenting rains, and crop prices are the lowest they’ve been in years, in part because of the U.S. trade dispute with China. …

“The lack of transparency and accountability on these [phosphorus] regulations has been frustrating,” said Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust, which monitors water quality issues on the Lower Shore.

The article also covered the monitoring and enforcement efforts of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), which is primarily responsible for implementing the PMT. MDA indicated that while the State had good data on affected farms and phosphorus levels in the soil, there was a challenge with tracking private poultry waste haulers and what was happening with the poultry litter they transported. MDA does have the authority to pause the PMT for a year and after hearing concerns from farmers is undertaking an evaluation to determine if a hold is warranted.

The article noted that a year delay could run into opposition from some General Assembly environmental legislators, including Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee Chair Paul Pinsky:

“If we delay it, and we save the farms and kill the Bay, then the watermen are not going to have jobs,” he said. “People are not going to boat on the Bay. It’s one sector of the economy versus another. …It’s a devil’s choice, and I think it’s wrong.”

Useful Links

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of Phosphorus Management Tool