Maryland's Governor Helps the Chesapeake

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

THERE ARE two big contributors to the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay: warm and polluted stormwater runoff stemming from overdevelopment, and agricultural runoff -- a polite way of saying there's an overabundance of manure in the water coming from dairy, hog and poultry farms. Maryland is pushing to limit both by taking key parcels of land off the market and devising rules to prevent mounds of chicken manure (a.k.a. litter) from leaching into waterways.

Pending the approval of the Board of Public Works, the state will spend $72 million to buy 9,242 acres of prime Maryland waterfront in fast-growing St. Mary's, Charles, Cecil and Worcester counties. Rather than add to the expanse of paved surfaces, which have increased 41 percent in the state since 1990, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) announced last week that the nearly 20 miles of shoreline that the properties encompass would be off-limits to developers but would be publicly accessible as trails, parks or beaches. This will keep the natural pollutant-filtering ecology of those areas intact.

Poultry is big business in the Free State. Chicken farms generate $845 million annually for the state's economy. The chickens themselves generate 650 million pounds of litter annually, making agricultural runoff the single biggest contributor of nitrogen and phosphorus to the bay. Both create the algae blooms and oxygen-starved "dead zones" that kill the fish, crabs and oysters that have literally fed the region's growth. For 10 years, efforts to regulate poultry farms have been stymied by a mix of industry pressure and government acquiescence.

Over the past year, Shari T. Wilson, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, devised new regulations with input from all interested parties. When the rules go into effect next month, the department says, 200 poultry operations representing 50 percent of the waste will be covered. Those with 100,000 square feet or more of chicken housing will need a permit to handle manure. Those with between 75,000 and 99,000 square feet of housing will need a litter plan certified and subject to inspection. All will have to abide by rules that limit how close manure piles can be to streams and ditches and how long they can be kept on a property.

More needs to be done to control the sources of pollution fouling the air and water in states and municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This requires a willingness to make tough decisions and stand up to entrenched interests. With the land deal and the poultry regulations, Mr. O'Malley is showing the requisite toughness.

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