Maryland agriculture officials are continuing to work on regulations that will keep more manure and sediment out of waterways, but they have no timetable for when they'll get the job done.
The state's Department of Agriculture introduced new, stricter nutrient management guidelines in the fall, earning praise from environmentalists and criticism from farmers. The environmental community generally applauded across-the-board measures such as restricting the application of manure in the fall, banning it altogether in the winter and putting more cropland in buffer areas â€” even as some groups advocated for tighter regulations. But the farmers excoriated the department for not consulting a key advisory committee, applying a one-size-fits-all plan to farms with different soil types and crop needs, and forcing farmers to take fertile land out of production to protect the environment.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley asked the department to pull the guidelines from the Maryland Register and rework them in light of the criticisms.
"The purpose was to iron out changes that would make the regulations effective at protecting water quality and easy to implement," said Maryland Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Julie Oberg. "There is no set time frame."
Oberg thought it was unlikely that new regulations would be out in the near future; the governor has an ambitious environmental agenda in the legislative session, and he plans to consult his BayStat cabinet before moving forward with the nutrient management guidelines.
The department took on the new nutrient management regulations to help Maryland meet its nutrient reduction goals as outlined in the watershed implementation plan, part of the total maximum daily load "pollution diet" for the Chesapeake Bay. Since 1998, Maryland has required all of its farmers to file a nutrient management plan, although the department acknowledges it hasn't always had the staff to make sure those plans are being followed.
Maryland had proposed a setback of 35 feet from surface water for applying nutrients and a 10-foot setback for pastures to prevent animals from reaching the streams. It also required all farmers to incorporate or inject manure within 72 hours of application, banned applying manure in the winter and restricted applying commercial fertilizer to small grain crops in the fall. The setbacks would have been phased in by 2014, and the winter manure restrictions by 2016.
In a letter to O'Malley, Maryland Farm Bureau President Patricia Langenfelder said the requirements short-circuited farmers' attempts to work through the TMDL process and could actually make matters worse by forcing farmers to load fields with manure during the times they are allowed to apply it.
"Frankly, it appears to the farm community that the most recent proposal to change nutrient management guidelines are designed to simply 'check off boxes' in the state's TMDL requirements rather than as reasonable, economically feasible, practices that take into consideration the varying factors on each farm in the state," she wrote.
Jenn Aiosa, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's senior scientist for Maryland, said the foundation wished the state had proposed tighter restrictions for fall application so that manure would never be applied unless there was a crop to take it up. But, she added, "Our view was, in the most general sense, they were going in the right direction. They were going to add some protections for water quality in Maryland that we don't currently have."
Agriculture is the single largest source of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And it has been one of the hardest sources to curb. Taking on new regulations is not politically popular, and even with the WIP requirements, other watershed states haven't followed Maryland's lead. Pennsylvania has not proposed similar changes to its nutrient management guidelines, although it has put some more restrictions on its management of manure, according to Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Amanda Witman. Virginia has not proposed any recent changes.
That's why Environment Maryland's Tommy Landers said that even though he was disappointed to see the regulations pulled back, he is still optimistic the state will come up with some new water-quality protections.
"It was a good step to take this on," he said. "I'm hopeful still that we will get a version of the regulations in place that will do what we need them to do."