Saying that actions to stem future outbreaks of pfiesteria are "the responsibility of every Marylander," a special blue-ribbon panel called for speedy implementation of a wide range of nutrient control activities in the state.
The recommendations cover everything from lawn care to sewage treatment, though most of the panel's attention was focused on agriculture, including a call for all farms to have nutrient management plans developed by 2000.
Still, the panel's November report cautioned that the pfiesteria problem was complex and "will not be solved overnight" and that "outbreaks of pfiesteria affecting fish may well occur again next year."
The commission, chaired by former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, was appointed by Gov. Parris Glendening after pfiesteria outbreaks in the Pocomoke and nearby rivers on Maryland's Eastern Shore killed nearly 20,000 fish and sickened about three dozen people.
The panel said that much remains unknown about what caused the single-celled microbe to take on a toxic form that can kill fish. It called for continued vigilance in monitoring water for signs of pfiesteria, as well as more basic research about the microbe and its impact on humans.
But it agreed with a scientific review panel that said reducing nutrient pollution would help reduce - but not necessarily eliminate - the risk of future pfiesteria outbreaks.
While pfiesteria problems in Maryland appeared to be limited to the lower Eastern Shore, the commission said a wide range of activities create nutrient problems for the Chesapeake and that "solutions to the problems impacting the Bay need to be addressed statewide."
The panel said the watersheds that appear to be most vulnerable to toxic outbreaks of pfiesteria should be prioritized for the installation of nutrient removal technologies at wastewater treatment plants.
To reduce runoff from urban and suburban areas, the panel said homeowners and lawn care services should be given more information about the proper handling and application of fertilizers. It also said the state should require that new septic systems be improved to remove more nutrients from effluent.
But most of the panel's recommendations involved agriculture. Although there is no clear link between agriculture and pfiesteria, most of the nutrients in rivers where pfiesteria occurred were from farming activities, and in areas where poultry production is particularly intense.
The commission recommended that all farmers in the state develop nutrient management plans by the year 2000, and that the plans be "demonstrably implemented" by 2002. The implementation goal, it said, should be "contingent upon the state supplying the appropriate level of education, outreach, technical support and financial resources necessary to meet these goals."
The commission also said the state Department of Agriculture needed better standards for acceptable nutrient management plans and that all plans developed by private consultants should be reviewed by the department or the Cooperative Extension Service.
Nutrient management plans serve as guides as to how much chemical fertilizer or animal wastes are needed by particular crops under various soil conditions to ensure maximum growth without leaving excess nutrients in the soil that can run off into local waterways.
In addition, the panel said that nutrient management plans should address both nitrogen and phosphorus. In past years, plans have focused on nitrogen, which has been of more concern Baywide. But animal waste, particularly that from chickens and hogs, tends to have a higher ratio of phosphorus to nitrogen than is needed by plans. [See "Controlling manure key to phosphorus woes," in the November 1997 Bay Journal.] So when farmers apply enough manure to meet a crops' nitrogen demands, they often over apply phosphorus.
Applying manure to meet only the phosphorus needs of crops may mean there will be excess amounts of manure in parts of the state with large animal agriculture operations.
The commission recommended the establishment of a pilot project to transport chicken manure from the lower Eastern Shore while better, long-term options are explored.
The commission encouraged the addition of the enzyme phytase to chicken feed, which would reduce the amount of phosphorus in their manure. Other alternatives that the commission suggested could help deal with excess animal wastes included the composting of manure; burning manure; modification of soil-tilling practices; and the establishment of buffer zones along streams. It stressed that research into those and other innovative nutrient control strategies should be supported.
Such research got a boost from the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., which pledged to make $1 million available over the next four years to support research related to environmental issues and the poultry industry.
The commission strongly encouraged the development of national standards for poultry and agribusiness industries so regulations imposed by one state do not put its farmers at an economic disadvantage against those in other states.