Bay Journal

You see a pile of poultry litter; I see a phosphorus mine

  • By Tom Horton on March 01, 2013
  • Comments are closed for this article.
A poultry farmer cleans litter out of a chicken house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.   (Dave Harp)

FedEx-ing beavers, neutering deer, erecting the Yucca Mountain of chickensh–t and composting pee…I'm on a roll here.

When you've been saving the Bay since the 1980s and just moved the finish line from 2010 to 2025, it's time to get creative.

Did I mention taxing babies?

Once, Bay rivers reverberated to the slapping tails of millions of beavers, whose gnawing was night music throughout the landscape, although few humans were here to hear.

And now, millions of us, and fewer beavers later, the Bay sorely misses the beavers' countless dams and ponds and bogs and sloughs that dampened the polluted runoff we now spend billions of dollars assuaging with our crude human devices.

So close the hatcheries for oysters, blue crabs, trout and shad. Breed beavers. Deliver them by FedEx, by UPS, in the dead of night in unmarked trucks manned by grinning greenies, to resurrect their empire throughout the watershed.

I suggest quite the opposite for deer, which have burgeoned in the absence of predators, in the presence of agriculture and in the refuges of suburban sprawl, where hunting them is near impossible.

Overgrazing forests is only the beginning of Bambi's impact. Deer are major vectors for the ticks that spread Lyme disease, whose threat has become a major barrier to enjoying our outdoors.

Stepped-up research for a deer-specific contraceptive should be seen as a major component of natural resource management. We need something deliverable in feed that won't affect other species that might eat it, or eat a deer. A Nobel Prize awaits.

Landfills are so 20th century, and Yucca Mountain, the granddaddy of them all, where we planned to bury nuclear wastes, appears dead in the Nevada desert.

Yet, right here in Bay country we have a tempting, if politically incorrect argument for landfilling mountains of poultry litter that pollute our rivers. The litter's rich in phosphorus, which is the problem; too many farm soils are already saturated with it.

Meanwhile, while we are debating when the world will run short on oil, come warnings that we will soon run short of phosphorus, which is mined in only a couple of places. Some serious ag scientists think it not crazy to create large, leakproof landfills in poultry hotspots to "bank" excess manure, to be extracted as world phosphorus prices soar.

Tourists might flock to the new, highest point on Maryland's Eastern Shore or the Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to view the scenic adjunct to the Blue Ridge.

But don't just go pickin' on chicken. Scintillating opportunities exist to separate pee from poop in our own wastes. It's the former that holds much of the nutrients we spend billions to take out with modern sewage plants.

Pee's the problem, and not so yucky as poop, and sterile to boot. It can be composted and turned into a transportable, marketable fertilizer. No less than the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has looked into the possibility at a state-of-the-art environment center that it's building in Virginia Beach.

And think of the jobs: retrofitting bathrooms and sewer lines throughout the watershed for dual waste streams. Hmmm, maybe pump it into scenic, golden lakes, adjacent to our scenic chicken poop mountains.

Most radical of all in the land of "bigger equals better" is a more serious pursuit of conservation, of downsizing. It's not rocket science how Europeans enjoy a quality of life similar to ours on considerably less energy and land for housing.

They live smaller. Ever try to buy a small stove or fridge here with all of the bells and whistles of big ones? Or a small luxury car?

We should reform tax policies to encourage smaller homes, smaller cars, smaller appliances—smaller families.

And tax savagely any home larger than 1,250 square feet, any car that does not get 40 mpg, any yard more than a quarter acre, any children born into a family that already has two.

All of the above numbers are science-based and, more importantly, maximize tax bennies to the author of this column.

At the risk of ending reasonably, here is a plug for revisiting the Clean Air Act as the most cost-effective way to cut Bay pollution. Most studies say reducing farm runoff affords the most Bay cleanup for one's buck; but if one adds the costs to human health to dirty air's impacts on the Bay, then cranking down harder on air pollution looks like a deal, too.

Failure to achieve Bay goals can be oddly liberating, an excuse to think creatively. There's nothing crazy or impractical about learning from beavers, about rethinking approaches to wastes, about reconsidering the sanctity of growth and bigness or the notion that hunters alone should set deer population policy.

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is a freelance writer, splitting his time between Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Read more articles by Tom Horton

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