There is no avoiding the fact that the big news around the Bay is last month's major fish kill on the Pocomoke River. While it is still not clear exactly what happened, and may never be, much evidence points to toxic, single-cell dinoflagellates, which emerge from the sediments when conditions for their attacks are right.
As many have already said, this is truly a wake-up call to act to restore healthy conditions in our rivers before it is too late. And frankly, it is just in time. With the Bay Program on the verge of completing its 1997 Reevaluation of progress toward the year 2000 goal of a 40 percent reduction in controllable nitrogen and phosphorous, and with evidence that we may be falling short, especially with respect to nitrogen, some have begun to argue that 2000 was an arbitrary time line from the outset, and so what if we take until 2005 or 2010 to get the levels down? This, despite the clear message from the Executive Council last year that our job was to identify any shortfalls and determine what needs to be done to overcome them.
But now the race is on, and those who argue for less than an all-out effort to meet our goals are courting danger with our rivers' ability to recover and support healthy fish stocks.
Even then, we have to accept that our current goals may not be enough and that in some rivers even more may be needed; but for the moment there is certainly no longer an argument to back off from our commitments.
Now, before someone starts yelling "Alarmist!" let me suggest that there is an object lesson to the south of us in North Carolina, where these sorts of kills are being measured not in a few thousands of fish, but in billions. And let me also say that the conditions which are being isolated down there as "triggers" for such events are by no means absent in some of the Bay's tributaries. What we can do can make a difference.
There is still some debate over the role played in the Pocomoke by the most notorious of these one-cell critters, Pfiesteria piscicida, and what may be the impact of other dinoflagellates with similar properties. But something like Pfiesteria was loose in the river.
Experience in other areas, including North Carolina and Delaware, indicates the triggering conditions number at least six; these are: relatively high water temperature, increased salinity, low rates of flushing, elevated acidity, high nutrient levels and isolated storm events.
There are a number of observations to make about this list. First, "normal" conditions for these vary by river; the Pocomoke, for example, is naturally more acidic because of the extensive marshes contributing to its tea-colored waters. It is also fairly far south and therefore warmer in the summer that other Eastern Shore rivers. These circumstances may make it more vulnerable to the family of toxic dinoflagellates.
More important for us, there is only one of the conditions which we can readily control-the level of nutrients entering the rivers. The others have been, and likely always will be, essentially in the hands of nature. But for this very reason, it is also likely that the reason we are experiencing the fish kills is that when the other conditions line up, the nutrient overload is there to help kick off the event. Whether the event would have occurred in each case absent the elevated nutrients we don't know; but logic tells us more frequent or severe events will result when those high levels of nutrients are present.
So we need to pin down the sources of the elevated nutrients. And we need to be open and honest about it. No one benefits from denying the obvious. We need to step up to the fact that in some rivers the major cause of the elevated levels is going to be from agricultural activities. And like it or not, one of those rivers is the Pocomoke. That is not rocket science. There are other rivers where the elevated levels are predominantly from other causes. If we had a similar fish kill in the lower Potomac, for example, we would be focusing on the major sewage treatment plants in the Washington metropolitan area. Wherever these things occur, we need to get beyond the platitudes and get to the facts.
So what is really going on in the Pocomoke? A number of things are well established. Poultry production is a major agricultural activity, and the poultry litter scooped out of the poultry houses every few weeks is rich in nutrients. The Maryland Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 70 percent of these operations have nutrient management plans and about two thirds have litter storage facilities. But we also know there are continual rumors about nutrient management plans not being implemented and storage sheds used for other purposes. Very much to its credit, the MDA is undertaking studies to verify if plans are implemented and facilities appropriately used for storage.
What else needs to be done? At least two things come to mind. For years now, we have known that the poultry industry is so intense in some farm areas that there may not be sufficient surrounding cropland to fully absorb all the litter produced. In addition to the Eastern Shore, other areas where this may be the case are the Shenandoah Valley, the Lower Susquehanna and the Upper Potomac in West Virginia. I am sorry that some are not ready to admit this, but it is the truth. For example, there is plenty of cropland on the upper Eastern Shore where the litter could be put to good use if we can solve the problem of transport. The sooner we begin taking seriously the need to move poultry litter to other areas with the capacity to fully use it, the sooner we are going to start to overcome these problems of overloading the rivers. Obviously, this is a solution for the private sector, but government can serve a role through tax incentives (which are already in place in Virginia) and other means.
Finally, it is time to get the poultry processors and integrators on the team to help. Thus far, they have for the most part left the disposal of the litter to the individual contract farmers. But the fact is they own the poultry in most cases, and they control feed and other inputs. Because they, in effect, own the source of the pollution, they should be among those responsible for pollution prevention.
The Delmarva poultry processors and integrators have led the nation in dealing with human health problems such as salmonella in the processing, packaging and distribution of their products. It is fitting for them to play a role, as well, in dealing with the natural resource and human health problems which are derived from another part of their product.
We need to work with them to try to build them into the solutions. And we need to move fast. The year 2000 is closer to us today than 1994 is behind us. And what happened in the Pocomoke tells us that time is running out on lowering the nutrient levels in our rivers.