REPORT: Fertilizer and Manure Are Polluting the Bay

Cape Charles Wave

April 6, 2014

According to a new report released by the U.S. Geological Survey, an excess of fertilizer and manure being used on Eastern Shore farms is excessively polluting rivers, streams and tributaries that flow into the Bay. The report, “Understanding Nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Implications for Management and Restoration – The Eastern Shore,” is based on research and data which looks at the Eastern Shore, which is responsible for nearly twice as much nitrogen and phosphorus per square mile of land area as other parts of the watershed. The report indicates that most of the excess nutrients come from agricultural production of crops and livestock, which use inorganic fertilizers or manure.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the landmark Chesapeake Bay “pollution diet” in 2013 to restore clean water in the region’s streams, creeks, and rivers. Formally known as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), the pollution diet identifies the necessary reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Key components are committing to more stringent nitrogen and phosphorus limits at wastewater treatment plants, dramatically increasing enforcement and compliance of state requirements for agriculture, and committing state funding to develop and implement state-of-the-art-technologies for converting animal manure to energy for farms.

Despite the federally imposed “Bay Pollution Diet,” the bay continues to be damaged by excessive nutrients, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus, which deplete the bay of oxygen needed for fish, crabs, and oysters, disturbs the habitat of underwater plants crucial for aquatic life and waterfowl, and causes harmful algal blooms and decreased water clarity, submerged aquatic vegetation, and dissolved oxygen.

“On the Eastern Shore, the concentrations of nitrogen in groundwater, and nitrogen and phosphorus in surface waters, are well above natural levels and are among the highest in the nation,” said co-author Scott Ator. “We are also seeing worsening nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in the Choptank River, which is the largest river on the Eastern Shore, despite management practices to improve water quality.”


As authors Ator and Judith Denver note, the Eastern Shore makes up only a tiny part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, yet it sends an excessive, disproportionate amount of nitrogen and phosphorus into it. The “large nitrogen and phosphorus yields from the Eastern Shore to Chesapeake Bay are attributable to human land-use practices as well as natural hydrogeologic and soil conditions.” The use of nitrogen and phosphorus by Eastern Shore farmers is intensive. More than “90 percent of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the land in the Eastern Shore is applied as part of inorganic fertilizers or manure or [for nitrogen] fixed directly from the atmosphere in cropland.”

A big issue is that due to the makeup of our land, the soil conditions make it easier for these compounds to move into groundwater and bay surface waters. The Eastern Shore’s proximity to tidal waters also limits the possibility of natural removal of these compounds in the landscape. The Eastern Shore “only includes 7 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but receives nearly twice as much nitrogen and phosphorus applications (per area) as the remainder of the watershed and yields greater nitrogen and phosphorus, on average, to the bay. Nitrogen and phosphorus commonly occur in streams at concentrations that may adversely affect aquatic ecosystems and have increased in recent decades,” the report states.

The report also makes the case that the Shore is the victim of application overkill. The fertilizer and manure applied to agricultural lands in past decades exceeds the amount needed by crops that have been planted. One of the biggest issues is that the excess nitrogen accumulates in groundwater, and excess phosphorus in soils. Once in the groundwater and soils, the “nitrogen and phosphorus move very slowly from upland areas to streams that eventually contribute to the water-quality problems in the Chesapeake Bay. Both the excess amount of nutrients applied to agricultural lands, and their slow movement, are delaying the full benefits of practices to improve water quality,” the authors state.

“The disproportionately large nitrogen and phosphorus yields from the Eastern Shore to the Chesapeake Bay are attributable primarily to agricultural activities but are also influenced by natural hydrogeologic and soil conditions,” said co-author Judith Denver. “The findings from the report will help inform more strategic placement of management practices intended to better utilize crop nutrients and reduce the excess available for transport to groundwater and streams,” she said.

The health of the bay is always in flux, yet overall water quality has shown small improvements, especially where new wastewater plants have been built up river, such as Baltimore’s Back River plant. Water quality may be slow to improve due to past over-applications of fertilizers. Some of these nutrients have accumulated in ground water, where it will take several years for them to seep out. Due to these issues, last year Maryland’s then-Governor O’Malley imposed limits on how much phosphorous could be used on fields. In January, however, new Governor Larry Hogan blocked the O’Malley measures, stating that he wanted further review and more public input.

From the agriculture perspective, the use of manure as a fertilizer offers a way to keep yields within range, yet still be able to do so at workable price point. Many in the industry claim that the ability to use manure and related fertilizers is critical to their being able to operate at a profitable margin. This notion led to a highly publicized legal challenge to the EPA pollution diet by Delmarva farmers’ and builders’ groups.

U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo, however, upheld the EPA’s right to impose a pollution “diet” for the Chesapeake Bay. Judge Rambo ruled that the EPA did not overstep its legal authority in requiring Maryland and the other five states in the bay watershed to move faster to reduce pollution that adversely affects the bay. A major part of the ruling, which certainly bolsters the EPA’s case, is that it was determined they had not relied on bad science in setting the new cleanup targets, and the public was also given ample opportunity to provide input.

“The ecological and economic importance of the Chesapeake Bay is well documented,” Judge Rambo said.



3 Responses to “REPORT: Fertilizer and Manure Are Polluting the Bay”

  1. Andy Zahn on April 7th, 2015 10:38 am

    What to say? The Bay is good, agriculture is bad. Humans with their lawns, golf courses, motorboats, and the waste they empty from their bodies into the waters are not good either. Killing animals is nasty and we need to give up eggs because roosters are worthless, like all males, and even the hens stop laying so must either be eaten or put on Social Security. Milk, cream, cheese, and butter need to be avoided because half the calves are bulls and what to do with them as well as the cows who no longer produce milk. There’s a problem with sheep (no more wool) and goats for the same reason.

    We all compete for the same food supply and from experience I know the animals and insects get there first. The day before my corn was ready I saw all the husks and silks up in the oak trees where the squirrels had feasted and we had none. If all the wildlife is allowed to feed on farm fields we will be short of every kind of food. With the drought in California we are already in for shortages and rising prices. To me, as a farmer, ethanol sounded great BUT it is a horrible fuel and has caused food prices to rise greatly, bringing big problems to underdeveloped countries.

    Yes, livestock consumes feed and water and recently on NBC they were saying how much water it takes to grow a head of lettuce (it’s huge!) or broccoli or many other crops. Giving up meat will not save the planet; we will still be using trillions of gallons of water and trillions of tons of food. It is a good thing that people eat different kinds of food since if we all ate the same thing there wouldn’t be enough to go around.

    A lot of what the government mandates, maybe most, makes no sense. A big fuss over marine toilets and holding tanks on boats. When nature calls it calls — whether it’s the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol on a Boston Whaler or a fisherman in a row boat or a bather in the ocean the person will do what the person needs to do. On a hot summer day if you fly the coast of NJ from Sandy Hook to Cape May you will see millions of bathers and swimmers and you can bet they are not going to look for a bathroom.

    Years ago 40 bushels of corn per acre was the norm and now it runs over 200 bushels. I attended a conference at the VPI Ag Station in Painter and the speaker said we could grow 100 bushels of soybeans per acre instead of the usual 40 to 50. I thought to myself, yes and the price would drop from $6 to $1 and we would work that much harder and put that much more wear and tear on our combines and grain trucks and be worse off than before. Every spring I soil tested and only put on the land what was recommended. Most farmers will do this because lime and fertilizer is very expensive and you only spend what you need to spend. We have no way to know what the future holds as to weather, weeds, insects, and diseases, and it is FAR better to produce too much food than to produce not enough. Fat people are happier than skinny people, and like Charlton Heston says, “They will have to take this pork chop from my cold dead hands!”

  2. Michael LaBelle on April 8th, 2015 1:16 pm

    Well stated. What is never mentioned in these discussions is that farmers do not put out fertilizer their soil test do not call for. Plants need what they need, when they need it and in the amounts they need, and no more.

    Animals other than chickens are also raised around the drainage basin that dumps into the bay as well as all the “treated” sewage waste that is emptied into the rivers from all the people living in the region. Getting back to the animals, even if cows and horses are kept out of the rivers, their waste can also wash into the rivers feeding the bay.

    So what is the answer? Move all the poultry farms out of the area? Save the bay but destroy the economy? More focus needs to be given to solutions rather than accusations.

  3. David Kabler on April 10th, 2015 1:03 pm

    Eat more veggies!