The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urges members to write to the EPA's new administrator, Lisa Jackson, asking her to take action that will improve water quality in the Bay. Let's hope that the Obama administration's newly appointed head of the EPA will actually start protecting the environment and not just the economy.
In a letter that I sent to the EPA on March 3, I emphasized that "Agricultural fertilization inefficiency is the primary cause of nutrient pollution of Chesapeake Bay, and animal waste is the least efficient fertilizer used." That includes sludge from wastewater treatment plants.
In the reply I received on March 25 from Jeffrey Lape, director of the Region III Chesapeake Bay Program Office, he admits "We estimate that agricultural animal manure and poultry litter [he omits municipal sewage sludge] contribute about half of the agricultural nutrient load to the Chesapeake Bay." (Both letters are posted at www.VaBayBlues.org, at the bottom of the "Correspondence with Officials" page.)
Because agricultural practices contribute at least half of anthropogenic Bay pollution, a ban on land application would eliminate at least 25 percent of all the nutrient pollution of the Bay. But rather than conclude that the nutrient load from the disposal of animal waste on fields should be eliminated, Lape asserts, "Agriculture is a defining feature of our region's economy and heritage."
Don't watermen define the region's heritage more than agriculture, which is similar everywhere in the country? Watermen's heritage is at risk of becoming extinct because of abysmal water quality, not farmers'.
Lape also asserts, "Reducing or eliminating the use of manure on agricultural lands would take a cultural change by the farmer." No more than 5 percent of agricultural land in Virginia receives animal waste, so "the farmer" really means a very small minority of farmers.
Is it the mandate of EPA to induce cultural changes in a few people, or to improve water quality in Chesapeake Bay for everybody? What would it cost to ban the land application of animal waste with the stroke of a pen, and instantly reduce Bay nutrient pollution by 25 percent? No tax dollars are needed. Very few farmers would be required to change their fertilization practices and behave like the other 95 percent of farmers, who are obviously profitable.
Meat would become slightly more expensive, at least until the meat producers recognized the value of waste as biofuel.
For those citizens connected to wastewater facilities, the elimination of the land application of sewage sludge means rates would rise, but no more than the cost of a few bags of junk food each year, even if the waste had to be land-filled.
There is no doubt that eliminating the land application of animal waste is the cheapest way to significantly reduce Chesapeake Bay nutrient pollution. A ban is incredibly cheap, compared to upgrading wastewater treatment plants or managing urban stormwater runoff, both of which also need to be done.
There is also no doubt that the land application of animal waste creates other worrisome problems, like the dissemination of antibiotics that promote the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
But given all the reasons to ban land application, the EPA continues to ignore the huge economic value of the Chesapeake Bay to society in favor of maximizing farm profits for a few.
Nutrient pollution from the dominant polluters, namely farmers, must be reduced or water quality will not improve.
Banning the land application of animal waste unquestionably provides the "biggest bang for the buck" by improving net agricultural fertilization efficiency. A ban also distributes the unavoidable cost of nutrient reduction about as equitably as possible.
And, the waste can reduce our reliance on imported oil.
Dr. Lynton S. Land is emeritus professor of geological sciences at the University of Texas in Austin and now lives in Ophelia, VA. His website is VABayBlues.org.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.