Too Big to Swale

Fortunately (and wittingly) we have avoided major overflow incidents from wastewater treatment plants here in Maryland for the past several years. Easier to overlook (and we have) are nonpoint sources of water pollution, which are classified as agricultural, urban, forest, and rural, i.e. septic systems. We have become pretty wise to containing hazardous materials, but the pollutants that are choking our bays and rivers with algae are everyday elements carried in the water seeping through or running over the land. There are over 500 potential water pollutants managed in various parts of Maryland, but one ubiquitous element, nitrogen, is the major problem nutrient feeding the algae invasion of our tidal waters.
Photo by Neil Williamson (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Agriculture is the largest contributor to nitrogen pollution and likely to remain so for many years. This could be because agriculture has consolidated its operations disproportionately to its proper ecological scale. Farms these days, in spite of their vast acreage, are generally family operations. Driven by globalization, agriculture has become a very competitive industry, so much that Maryland farmers would not settle for local administration of their part of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). They needed more consistent application of the standards that constitute the nutrient diet for the Bay, so TMDL for agriculture is managed at the state level.

However, it is the counties who are responsible for their reducing all of their nutrient flows (including agriculture) below set targets or risk losing their federal funding for infrastructure. In other words, the counties have accountability, but no authority for the behavior of their agricultural sectors. It should be no surprise that they have to shoot beyond their targets in the other sectors in order to make up for the lack of progress by agriculture. (I only have data from St. Mary's County, but am assuming that this subversion of local authority has the same effect everywhere.)

Am I being unfair to the agristocracy? Don't I realize they are working hard to make sure I don't go to bed hungry? No. If anybody has been unfair to them, it's the drafters of the TMDL limits. If those limits are unrealistic or biased, they should be changed. Until then, I'm sticking with my view that Ag is too big to swale and follow other Best Management Practices (BMP's) in fulfillment of their responsibility to help clean up the Bay.


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