PMT -- that would be Maryland’s phosphorus management tool, the science-based calculation and proposed regulation that would force farmers with soils saturated in phosphorus to apply no more. That meant farmers, particularly those on the Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore, would not be able to spread manure if a complex set of calculations showed their soil phosphorus levels were too high. Poultry manure abounds in the area, and the proposed regulation meant that farmers would soon be saddled with an excess of manure and no place to take it.

Well, it would have meant that - except on the day he was inaugurated, Gov. Larry Hogan, the third Republican to hold the top office in Maryland in 50 years, pulled the regulations. Environmentalists were livid; farmers were ecstatic; government regulators were left wondering, if there’s no PMT, what else is the state going to do to reduce pollution loads to the Chesapeake, as required by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load negotiated with the EPA.

But, as previously stated, those issues would not be addressed from the podium. The First Annual State of the Science of Phosphorus was going to be about just that: The Science of Phosphorus. How it moves, where it goes, why it’s harmful in waterways but an essential building block of life within us.

The conference was organized a year ago, when the PMT was on track to become a reality. The Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland Extension put together the speakers. With little advertising, they soon found the conference so over-subscribed they had to allow more people to come than planned. In all, 358 people attended, and there was a waiting list.

The organizers were serious about their PMT warning. They took questions on note cards, so if anyone DID ask about the PMT, they could screen out the question and it would not be read aloud.  Their admonition was probably well advised, as the discussions over the PMT have become heated, and why talk policy when you have the foremost soil scientists in the room? But it surely frustrated some, especially when the PMT’s architect, Josh McGrath, made a rare Maryland appearance. (McGrath worked on the PMT and phosphorus issues in Maryland for several years before moving to the University of Kentucky, where he is now a professor.)

There was a lot of positive talk about phosphorus, which is a non-renewable resource. And there was no contentiousness, at least none that I could observe. The phosphorus scientists all really, really seem to like each other. Some have even been roommates in the past.

“I would like for us to think of phosphorus as an opportunity and not a problem,” said Doug Myers of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “If we manage it better, we will get to more solutions. This is a great opportunity for us because there is a lot of misinformation.”

That’s been true over the years. For decades, agriculture departments and scientists advocated putting as much fertilizer on fields as needed to grow crops. Nitrogen would run off, the conventional wisdom went, but phosphorus was sticky. In the 1990s, scientists began to realize that phosphorus would run off the land, too. Research conducted in the Chesapeake region, particularly on the Delmarva, suggested that phosphorus also seeped into sub-surface pathways and entered groundwater and streams. The Eastern Shore’s poor drainage promoted the leaching of phosphorus, which fuels algae blooms which can choke  aquatic life.

For more on the research, check back here: We’ll be doing a story on that. Also, we will soon have a story on what those closely involved in the PMT think of recent developments, and what might be next for phosphorus limitations in the watershed.