More accountability needed for Chesapeake Bay pollution
A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report card on the Chesapeake Bay was headlined “partners are making progress in Chesapeake Bay cleanup.” But a pair of new reports by the Environmental Integrity Project demonstrate that EPA may be over-estimating reductions in farm pollution and that phosphorus and algae concentrations remain too high in rivers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and have shown no real improvement in the last decade.
The two new reports are titled Poultry’s Phosphorus Problem and Murky Waters: More Accountability Needed for Farm Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Their release comes at a time when Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s Administration continues to delay and study poultry manure management regulations (called the “Phosphorus Management Tool”) needed to reduce pollution in Bay tributaries.
“These reports provide a wealth of evidence that Maryland must move forward with implementing its long-promised Phosphorus Management Tool, which is critical to controlling the phosphorus pollution hotspots on the Eastern Shore,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA. “Managing this poultry waste is too important to leave to the next governor. The O’Malley Administration should not allow these protections for the Chesapeake Bay be watered down or stopped by the agricultural lobby.”
The Environmental Integrity Project report Poultry’s Phosphorus Problem provides an analysis of trends in phosphorus pollution levels from 2003 to 2013 in the eight major waterways on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The analysis shows no improvement over the decade – despite the agriculture industry’s claims of success in reducing runoff. In fact, the EIP report shows that phosphorus pollution levels have become worse at monitoring stations in three rivers, the Nanticoke, the Sassafras, and the Transquaking, according to state monitoring data.
Recent evidence also indicates that certain “best management practices” by farms to reduce such pollution may not be working as well as intended, despite the best efforts of EPA, state agencies, and farmers. EPA and the states have acknowledged this is a problem that needs to be addressed.
In the period 2011 to 2013, average spring and summer concentrations of total phosphorus exceeded University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science benchmarks for healthy waterways at 16 out of 18 monitoring stations in the eight Eastern Shore rivers. The phosphorous levels surpassed these benchmarks by 338 percent in the Manokin River, 160 percent in the Transquaking, 69 percent in the Chester, 64 percent in the Sassafras, 50 percent in the Wicomico, 47 percent in the Upper Choptank, 21 percent in the lower Pocomoke, and 15 percent in the Nanticoke.
Phosphorus pollution spurs excessive growth of algae, which then dies and creates low oxygen “dead zones.” Concentrations of spring and summer chlorophyll-a (an indicator of algae) were much higher in the Eastern Shore rivers than thresholds for healthy waterways. In 2011-2013, average spring concentrations of chlorophyll-a exceeded these thresholds by 1,152 percent in the Transquaking River, 368 percent in the Manokin, and 51 percent in the Upper Choptank, according to the EIP analysis of Maryland data.
These high pollution levels are in rivers that are surrounded by 1,339 chicken farms that generate over 500 million broilers and at least a billion pounds of manure a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state data. The waste contains an estimated 30 million pounds of phosphate. The agriculture industry is the largest single source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, contributing 57 percent of the phosphorus pollution, 42 percent of the nitrogen, and 59 percent of the sediment in the estuary in 2013, according to the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program.
The Murky Waters report describes how the Bay cleanup plan by EPA and the Chesapeake region states (called the Bay pollution “diet” or Total Maximum Daily Load) is now several years along with little evidence of success. A major problem, according to the report, is that the models that EPA and the states use to estimate the effectiveness of agricultural runoff control strategies appear to be overstating the progress of farms in reducing pollution. These strategies, often called BMP’s or “best management practices,” include planting cover crops in the fall and winter to absorb extra fertilizer, and leaving buffer strips of trees and plants beside streams to filter out sediment and pollutants.
Neither the states nor EPA monitor streams next to farms enough to determine how well these strategies are really working. To close the “knowledge gap” with regard to the effectiveness of farm pollution control strategies, the chesapeake bay region states need more and better stream monitoring in small sub-watersheds dominated by agriculture. “The models used to predict pollution reductions are based on a set of uncertain and/or inaccurate assumptions,” said Abel Russ, an EIP attorney and author of the Murky Waters report. “If the Bay states are going to rely on these models, we think it is important that they verify their assumptions by making sure that BMP’s are implemented and maintained. And then they should check how well the models are working by looking at real data.”
The Environmental Integrity Project is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the enforcement of the nation’s anti-pollution laws and to the prevention of political interference with those laws. For copies of the reports, visit: www.environmentalintegrity.org.