Reacting to last year's outbreak of fish-killing pfiesteria on the Eastern Shore, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening wants all farmers to write phosphorus-based nutrient management plans by 2000 and implement them by 2002.

In a legislative package sent to the General Assembly in January, the governor also called for accelerating wastewater treatment plant upgrades on the Eastern Shore, imposing new requirements for nutrient applications on open land such as golf courses, and requiring certification for lawn-care professionals.

The most controversial part of the initiative, though, was the nutrient management requirement aimed at the agricultural community, where those who failed to meet the program's strict deadlines would be subject to penalties.

In his State-of-the-State Address, Glendening said his plan was "based on the best available science. It is based on our knowledge that excessive nutrients are harmful to the Bay and its tributaries. And, it is based on the knowledge that if we do not change our behavior, outbreaks of toxic pfiesteria will continue year after year after year. We must put an aggressive, fair, comprehensive plan in place now."

But a group of legislators from rural areas of the state responded with a plan that would require 70 percent of farmers to adopt nutrient management plans by 2002 and 80 percent by 2005. Their bill contains no fines or penalties.

The governor would spend $2.8 million to add 20 educational and technical assistance positions in the Department of Agriculture to assist farmers. The plan from rural lawmakers, noting that technical assistance for farmers has been falling for years, calls for even more state assistance to farmers in developing plans.

"What we need is time, technology and resources," said Steve Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

The chief problem in dealing with the issue is figuring out what to do with the excess animal waste that would be created by a switch to phosphorus-based nutrient management plans.

Nutrient management plans are blueprints for applying fertilizers based on the nutrient needs of the crop. By optimizing applications, little fertilizer should be left to run off the fields and into rivers and streams. In the past, nutrient management plans have been based on the nitrogen needs of crops because nitrogen was considered more likely to be washed off the field than phosphorus.

Recent research has shown that some areas of the Eastern Shore are so saturated with phosphorus that it, too, is getting into local waterways. The problem for farmers is that the ratio of phosphorus to nitrogen in chicken and hog wastes is greater than what is needed by plants.

If that waste is applied based on the phosphorus needs of crops, farmers will have large amounts of animal wastes left over which will need to be shipped someplace else. At the same time, farmers will have to purchase additional nitrogen fertilizer to meet their crop needs.

Glendening's plan includes tax credits to help defray some costs, and would spend $1 million a year for three years to find markets and treatment techniques for excess wastes, as well as spending $350,000 to support programs that alter animal feed so less phosphorus is left in the waste.

The program also called for:

  • Accelerating the planned upgrades of 14 Eastern Shore wastewater treatment plants to help them remove nutrients more effectively. The upgrades will be completed within three years instead of five, as originally planned. Glendening called for spending $5.9 million on the plants in the coming year.

  • Certification for lawn-care company employees who apply fertilizers on lawns.

  • Nutrient management plans for golf courses and other large tracts of land that are fertilized.

  • Education programs geared to homeowners about proper fertilizer use.

  • Having the Department of the Environment work with local governments to develop nitrogen standards for new septic systems.

  • Spending $1.5 million a year for three years to help Eastern Shore farmers plant cover crops that help absorb excess nutrients.

  • Spending $5.9 million to help farmers construct manure storage sheds and dead bird composters.

  • Spending $800,000 for three years on research to reduce nutrient loading in the Bay and its tributaries.