Maryland regulations governing the management of poultry litter took effect for the first time on Jan. 12.

The state's Department of the Environment issued the regulations to further minimize the amount of nutrients and other pollutants that can potentially enter waterways from facilities where animals are stabled, confined and fed.

Under the regulations, large poultry operations must have discharge permits and follow procedures for the management and storage of used poultry litter.

Poultry litter is bedding used on the floor of chicken houses to trap manure. It is made from absorbent organic materials like wood shavings, sawdust or straw. Periodic clean-outs create substantial amounts of a litter-manure mix that can be used as fertilizer but must sometimes be stored until farmers are ready to apply it.

If rain reaches the litter, nitrogen and phosphorus can seep into groundwater or enter streams through stormwater runoff.

The nutrient management plans long required of Maryland farmers address only the application of fertilizer. The new rules expand on those plans by limiting the amount of time that poultry litter can be stored without cover and requiring the diversion of rainwater away from the piles. They also mandate a buffer area between state waters and areas where manure is stored or applied.

The regulations also address problems with other pollutants in animal feeding operations, such as antibiotics, hormones, pathogens, heavy metals and sediment. Policy-makers and environmentalists were especially concerned about Maryland's Eastern Shore, where a large poultry industry exists in close proximity to Bay waters.

The MDE expects that the new rules will bring 200 of the approximately 900 poultry operations under regulation, addressing 50 percent of the poultry litter produced in Maryland.

It is not clear to what extent the regulations will improve water quality. There are no firm numbers tracing the amount of water pollution linked to poultry operations on the Eastern Shore. The agriculture community has argued that the new rules will do little more than add fees and paperwork without changing good stewardship practices already in place.

The MDE issued the rules after a year of public review and comments from farmers, environmentalists and scientists.

In a joint statement, the MDE and the Maryland Department of Agriculture said that they "appreciate the thoughtful input received from many Maryland citizens, including the expertise of farmers, over the course of the permit development process. It has resulted in a much better final product."