Alison Prost: Don’t Backtrack on the Bay

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By: Alison Prost

Is there a way for Gov. Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly to find common ground on two controversial environmental issues this year – reducing pollution from excess manure in rural areas, and reducing polluted runoff in urban and suburban parts of the state?

We certainly hope so. Maryland is counting on these two major clean-up measures to continue our progress toward restoring the Chesapeake and our local creeks and rivers.

And while we encourage across-the-aisle problem solving, we at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will fight forcefully to ensure whatever bills emerge during this legislative session, or whatever regulations are put forth by the Hogan Administration, are strong enough to do the job. Watered-down measures won’t get us clean water.

Recent assessments of the Bay’s health have found significantly less pollution entering the Maryland part of the Bay, thanks in large part to upgrades at the state’s major sewage plants. Marylanders paid for those upgrades and the millions of pounds of reduced pollution they brought through the so-called ‘flush fee.’ 

Now we need to upgrade our stormwater systems. In the Greater Baltimore-D.C. area this is the next major source of water pollution in many creeks and rivers. It’s weed-killer, pet waste, oil and other contaminants that wash off the landscape after a storm. It’s such a problem that the Maryland Department of the Environment warns Marylanders not to swim in any creeks, stream, river or the Bay for 48 hours after a good summer thunderstorm.

And we need farmers on the Eastern Shore and our rural areas to help by applying the correct amount of manure on crop fields. Currently, about 228,000 tons of excess poultry manure are applied, and phosphorus in the manure ends up in nearby creeks and rivers, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Phosphorus is a major cause of the ‘dead zones’ of low oxygen that afflict Eastern Shore rivers such as the Choptank each summer, as well as the Bay at large. A tool developed over 10 years by the University of Maryland would enable farmers to determine the correct amount of manure to apply as fertilizer, without hurting the environment.

Governor Hogan pulled proposed regulations proposed by the O’Malley Administration to address the manure crisis, and on Feb. 23 announced alternative regulations. Thankfully, those regulations recognize the necessity of regulating with the tool, but they include loopholes that allow for potentially indefinite delays of implementation. We cannot accept that. We support, instead, a legislative fix to the manure crisis, SB 257 and HB 381. Those cross-filed bills already represent considerable compromise between environmentalists and agricultural interests, allowing a six-year phase-in of the tool.

CBF also opposes any bills that purport to solve the problem of polluted runoff, without requiring local, dedicated funding. Reducing this type of pollution is expensive work. For decades, Maryland’s most populated counties and Baltimore City have been required by state law to adequately fund this work, but they haven’t. The General Assembly tried to fix that in 2012 by requiring these 10 populated jurisdictions to collect a dedicated fee. We oppose any attempt to repeal that law, or bills that would merely bring us back to a failed past. We’ve heard the promises before. We need accountability.

We hope in the coming weeks the General Assembly and the Hogan Administration can work together to forge collaborative, but effective solutions to these issues. Our measure of success cannot be simply that we passed legislation or enacted regulation. Our yardstick of success must be clean water.    

The public demands nothing less. Over 200 people took time off from jobs and families recently to attend a Rally for Clean Water 2015 on Lawyer’s Mall. Over 20,000 “Don’t Backtrack on the Bay” messages have been sent to Governor Hogan and legislators. When county leaders in Harford held a public hearing to consider repealing the county’s polluted runoff fee, residents spoke out for the fee, against a repeal. These are just some of the signs of the public’s desire for forceful action.

People understand that cleaner water will bring stronger communities and greater economic prosperity, just as a tide uplifts all boats. Requiring farmers to apply only the necessary amount of manure on fields, for instance, can actually improve the farmer’s bottom line in the long run. Various technologies and industries are emerging that can use excess manure, or the phosphorus it contains, for alternative uses. The farmer can profit from doing the right thing.

History will record whether this governor and this General Assembly kept us on track to a healthier Chesapeake Bay. To all lawmakers, we say: Don’t Backtrack on the Bay.

By Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

 

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