Bay Journal

Animal agriculture needs to stop chickening out of Bay cleanup

  • By Velma Smith on June 01, 2011
The Bay watershed is home to roughly 222 million chickens.  (Chesapeake Bay Program)

For those of us with long memories and ample age, today's debate on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup is familiar and deeply troubling.

A new furor over cleanup plans, it seems, is replowing old and unproductive ground, putting the quest for Bay restoration on a troubling trajectory toward finger-pointing, blame-shifting and doubt.

It's time to get back on track and get agriculture, particularly animal agriculture, on board.

It was more than 35 years ago when Maryland Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias brought the resources of the federal government to the aid of an ailing Bay. Champion of a coordinated approach to rescuing this great natural treasure, Mathias pressed for the studies by the EPA that led to the first Bay agreement. That 1983 accord was signed with the high hopes and determination by three governors, the mayor of the District of Columbia and the EPA administrator. It was short on specifics, but clear on the need for cooperation.

Four years later, scientists and policy makers focused on the major pollution culprits: nitrogen and phosphorus. At that moment, our elected representatives were bold enough to agree on a measurable goal: a 40 percent reduction of these nutrients by 2000. While the objective drew sighs of disappointment from some environmentalists, all agreed that even at this level, accomplishing such a feat in the face of a growing population would be difficult.

Since then, progress has come in fits and starts. Phosphate detergents disappeared from kitchens; wastewater permits tightened; Marylanders began paying a flush tax to fund sewage upgrades; the government paid farmers to plant cover crops and build manure storage facilities; and older cities began to remedy antiquated combined sewer systems.

But deadlines have slipped and restoration, though closer, remains elusive. A 2000 agreement set its sights on meeting water quality standards by 2010, but that date, too, has passed with aspirations unfulfilled.

What has become crystal clear in the interim is that the early studies and fundamental policies were spot on. Today, we know that an overabundance of nutrients plague not only the Bay and its tributaries, but also many other lakes, rivers and estuaries across the country. And excess nitrogen and phosphorus come not just from wastewater treatment plants, but also from a diversity of sources, including large amounts from industrial animal agriculture. Most people have also come to accept what ecology and common sense have long told us: The frame of reference for dealing with water pollution must be a watershed, not political boundaries.

One might have hoped, then, that as the last pages of yet another calendar turned over without the achievement of cleanup goals, there would have been unanimity on the need to redouble the effort and find new levels of nutrient reductions from all sectors. We should have witnessed a collective effort to tackle the multiple sources of nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to the Bay's decline, including the still vexing and poorly controlled "nonpoint" pollution.

Anthems of cooperation have grown faint these days, and the 1997 wake-up call of fish kills by Pfiesteria microorganisms have apparently faded from memory. Today, louder voices - including those that have argued against any semblance of regulation for decades - seem to question the fundamental underpinnings of the Bay cleanup program. Instead of getting on with the tough task of controlling runoff and addressing the growing contribution of nutrients in groundwater, some would have us put the still evolving Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, for the Bay on hold.

The argument made by one representative from my home state is that the newly crafted Chesapeake Bay "pollution diet" is flawed and far too costly. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte says that states and localities, not the EPA, should manage water quality. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has been called on the congressional carpet, accused of a "regulatory power grab," and Goodlatte has pressed his colleagues with a legislative rider that would, in essence, summarily dismiss EPA from the joint cleanup effort altogether.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that much of today's furor appears to be fueled by a sector that has long argued for and won what amounts to little legislation and oversight. The intensive animal agriculture industry that uses the Delmarva Peninsula and, increasingly, the Shenandoah Valley that is Goodlatte's home turf, has for years battled efforts to improve accountability and environmental management on many fronts.

For more than two decades, industry representatives have argued against regulations on nutrient management and urged policy makers to give flexible, voluntary measures "a little bit of time" to work.

Now the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau are in federal court, seeking to block the new "pollution diet" with a lawsuit, arguing that the latest effort to drastically cut nutrients from the Bay is "going to push agriculture out of the watershed." That argument remains unchanged from what Maryland policy makers heard from the chicken industry a decade ago when they proposed that the large companies that own the birds raised by individual contract growers take more responsibility for waste management.

The TMDL lawsuit also follows a broader legal attack mounted by the National Chicken Council and others, challenging the notion that large, concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which manage enormous volumes of manure, should be required to obtain permits under the federal Clean Water Act. Instead of crafting such permits upfront to prevent and control discharges, as is done for other industries, they would delay issuance until after a violation occurs.

Many farmers, of course, have adopted important conservation measures aimed at controlling pollution. But as a federal study spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and based in part on farmer surveys has shown, too few farmers have adopted the full suite of practices needed to protect the Bay. In fact, according to the USDA, nearly all of the Bay cropland that is fertilized with manure needs improved management.

Now is the time to move forward on this front, issuing reasonable but meaningful permits to animal operations, identifying incentives for better manure management and insisting that the large corporations that contract with family farmers assume their fair share of responsibility.

In this sensitive Chesapeake ecosystem that is home to nearly 17 million people and, as the National Research Council has recently pointed out, roughly 222 million chickens, the Bay's cleanup should be carried out by all, including industrial animal agriculture.

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About Velma Smith

Velma M. Smith is an officer in government relations for the Pew Environment Group. She served on the Virginia State Water Control Board from 1986 to 1992.

Read more articles by Velma Smith

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