Maryland's longstanding commitment to controlling agricultural runoff through voluntary actions has been tossed out in favor of what many say is the most strict law governing the use of fertilizer and animal waste in the nation.Acting on its final day, the state General Assembly approved a bill that will require farmers in the next three to seven years to prepare and implement plans guiding their use of fertilizer and animal wastes.

"This session's nutrient management legislation puts Maryland at the forefront of national efforts to protect water resources," said Senator Brian E. Frosh. "The bill launches a strong response to last year's outbreaks of pfiesteria and will provide long-term benefits to our natural resources and the people who use them."

The legislation was a compromise between a proposal by Gov. Parris Glendening, who would have required that the plans be written and implemented sooner, and rival legislation that gave the farmers more time and would not have made the plans mandatory.

"The compromise works out more time and state assistance to the farming community for this major water quality issue," said Del. Ronald A. Guns, a sponsor of the rival legislation. "This compromise was necessary to allow more time to solve this problem."

Environmentalists, though, said the compromise will take too long to get results. "Although we're pleased that a bill passed in Maryland, we're discouraged that little, if anything will be done to address the immediate nutrient pollution problem, and that is some 800,000 tons of manure being dumped onto saturated soils on the lower Eastern Shore; and it is permitting runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries on an annual basis," said David Slater, a spokesperson for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The bill was one of the most contentious issues facing the legislators. Glendening had vowed to call a special session of the General Assembly if it failed to act on the issue.

The law is thought to be most stringent in the nation because it requires that farmers apply fertilizer and manure on their land based on phosphorus content - rather than just nitrogen. That will create huge disposal problems for the massive quantities of phosphorus-rich animal manure generated in areas with intense livestock activity.

"Phosphorus-based nutrient management is hard," said Tom Simpson, Chesapeake Bay Coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "I can't think of anyplace that would be more stringent than that." In large part, the legislation was a response to last summer's outbreak of pfiesteria and closely related microbes, which was blamed for killing 20,000 fish in the Pocomoke River and sickening dozens of people. Although scientists remain unsure of the exact conditions that cause pfiesteria - normally a benign organism - to turn toxic, excess nutrients are considered a factor.

Water quality monitoring has shown that nutrient concentrations in the Pocomoke and other lower Eastern Shore tributaries increased in recent years. The majority of the nutrients in those basins are thought to come  from agriculture.

Although no conclusive link with pfiesteria was made, the rapidly growing poultry industry on the Eastern Shore took much of the blame for the pollution.

Growing concern over large-scale livestock operations, and their potential impacts on water quality, has also sparked proposals by the EPA to begin regulating animal feedlots. Pending bills in Congress would also expand the federal role in regulating such operations.

"I think a lot of farmers are pleased that there is discussion at the federal level so we have kind of an even playing field," said Valerie Connelly, government relations director with Maryland Farm Bureau. "A lot of farmers feel that the additional costs of some of these programs will make their products uncompetitive, at least with regard to products being produced in other states."

"We're just hoping the federal government doesn't require something that goes in a different direction than what the state program is asking farmers to do," she added.

While the pfiesteria issue is new, nitrogen and phosphorus have long been a concern for the Bay. In excess amounts, they trigger algae blooms, which block sunlight to important underwater plants that provide food and habitat for waterfowl, blue crabs, juvenile fish and other species. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen needed by other aquatic specie.

Basinwide, agriculture contributes about 44 percent of the nitrogen and about 56 percent of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake, according to Bay Program figures. In Maryland, agriculture contributes about 38 percent of the nitrogen and 55 percent of the phosphorus.

To protect the Bay and the rivers that feed it, both Pennsylvania and Virginia have moved toward stricter regulations of animal wastes and fertilizer in recent years.

Pennsylvania enacted nutrient management legislation in 1993 that required nutrient management plans for "concentrated animal operations." A concentrated animal operation was defined as a farm that exceeds  two animal equivalent units per acre (an animal equivalent unit is 1,000 pounds, or roughly one cow, or about 1,000 chickens.) That affected fewer than 20 percent of the state's farms, but more than 60 percent of the farm animals.

Virginia does not require nutrient management, but in 1996 the General Assembly passed a "bad actor" law which allows anyone to file complaints about farms suspected of causing pollution problems. If the complaint is borne out by an on-site investigation, the violator has to take action or face fines.

But Maryland's law is more strict than either. It requires all agricultural operations with an annual income of at least $2,500, or a livestock operation with eight or more animal equivalent units, to develop nutrient management plans.

Nutrient management plans are farm-specific guides which - taking into account such variables as soil conditions and the crops being grown - set the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus to be applied. The intent is to maximize plant growth, but not to overfertilize the fields, which can contribute to runoff.

Under the new law, farmers must have nutrient management plans written and implemented for nitrogen by the end of 2002. The compromise legislation gives farmers who apply animal manure or sludge until 2005 to develop phosphorus plans. Farmers who fail to develop a plan may be fined up to $250, and anyone not implementing a plan may be fined up to $2,000 per year.

The phosphorus requirement is expected to be most problematic. It had long been thought that phosphorus would bind to soils and be less likely to run off the land than nitrogen, which is more water soluble. But research in recent years has found the soil in some areas with intense chicken and hog farms is so phosphorus-saturated that there, too, the phosphorus can readily run off the land.

Animal manure, especially that of chickens and hogs, has a higher ratio of phosphorus to nitrogen than is usually required by plants. As a result, many farms with large amounts of animal manure will run out of land on which to apply the waste.

It's unclear how that waste will be disposed of in the long-term. But the bill establishes a four-year pilot program to redistribute poultry litter from the areas of highest concentration to places that may need it as fertilizer. It's hoped that the effort can eventually be turned into a privatized, profit-making venture.

"We hope the scientific community can develop the techniques that we're going to need before the year 2005 to manage for phosphorus," Connelly said. "It's a leap of faith at this point."

Some have suggested solutions such as burning the excess manure, or using soil additives such as alum - which helps bind phosphorus to the soil so it can't run off - to help manage phosphorus, but such solutions will require more research. The bill establishes a fund to support such research. To help reduce the amount of phosphorus in chicken manure, the bill also requires that phytase, an enzyme that helps reduce the amount of phosphorus in poultry waste, be added to chicken feed by the end of 2000.

The legislation includes a variety of financial incentives, including cost-sharing for nutrient management plan development, a tax credit of up to $4,500 for costs related to implementing phosphorus-based nutrient management planning, and an additional deduction for certain manure-spreading equipment expenses.

Under the legislation, the state agriculture department will be responsible  for reviewing the plans and ensuring that they are implemented. The department will have a minimum of 110 people in soil conservation  district field positions by July 1, 1999 to help develop nutrient management plans, nearly double the number of current staffers.

Also, an advisory panel will be established to report annually on progress, and problems, toward implementing the law.