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As Long as We Remember...

October 19, 2005

The Sun and the Bay”

Kevin E. Dayhoff

A big advantage of advancing age is that you get to recognize news media silliness when it happens. Many in the agriculture community did not find the July 26th article in Baltimore’s Sun by Tom Pelton to be silly and are quite annoyed.

Everyone has a bad day, but then the unfortunate moments in that article were repeated – not once, but twice in articles published August 25 and again on October 4 in the same newspaper.

Ideally the press should be pre-occupied, at least on better days, with finding the best way to report the relevant and provide as much insightful information and context as possible, while remaining an observer and avoiding becoming a tool.

However, in Maryland, Democrats and many non-governmental organizations have been so good at maneuvering The Sun that a valid question arises as to whether it is always a neutral observer or is sometimes an unwitting instrument.

Now I certainly understand that we must not be bashing The Sun. We all read their editorial entitled “Baltimore Bashing” on September 29. It seems that it is okay for The Sun to bash Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, farmers and anything else that doesn’t pass The Sun’s liberal litmus test.

Someone said it better than me; Maryland “deserves a first class newspaper, not a newsletter to the left beloved by the Pulitzer voters but not by the people it is supposed to be selling to.”

Pelton’s July 26th article was entitled “A third of bay is 'dead zone,' survey shows.” He wrote that “more than a third of the Chesapeake Bay was a low-oxygen "dead zone" during monitoring this month, meaning the nation's largest estuary is on pace to have one of its most unhealthy summers on record…”

Then he threw farmers overboard into the dead zone when he wrote that: “Dead zones form when farm fertilizer and other pollutants high in nitrogen and phosphorus are washed by rain into the bay. These compounds feed an explosive growth of algae, which die and rot. Bacteria devouring this decaying mass consume oxygen, suffocating marine life.

“[Dr.] Beth McGee, senior scientist with Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), said the last few years of poor oxygen levels mean that the state should approve more funding to help reduce farm runoff, the No.1 source of pollution.

"Until we have significant increases in funding to help farmers reduce agricultural runoff, this trend will only get worse… State payments would help farmers plant trees bordering waterways and crops in the off-season to catch runoff… she said.”

Dr. McGee was helpful, but Mr. Pelton, where is the rest of the story?

To Mr. Pelton’s credit, buried at the end of the article was a quote from Bruce Michael, Department of Natural Resources' director of tidewater ecosystem assessment. "These low oxygen levels mean we still have a lot of work to do to restore the bay. Just upgrading sewage treatment plants won't do it. We need less fertilizer on lawns and farms, upgrades of septic tanks, storm water control systems - all of these things will reduce nutrient pollution."

On August 25 The Sun published another article by Mr. Pelton entitled “Oxygen-deprived 'dead zone' spreads over 41% of the bay.”

Here we go again.

He wrote: “Low-oxygen "dead zones" spread during hot weather, when runoff of farm fertilizer and other pollutants into the bay feed the multiplication of algae.” The article was short and the information – “dead zones are caused when “runoff of farm fertilizer… feed the multiplication of algae” – jumped right out.

In an article headlined “Chesapeake's 'dead zones' set a record,” published October 4; Mr. Pelton wrote: “The dead zones are the result of farm fertilizer and other pollution, which breed algae and oxygen-devouring bacteria. An August of stultifying heat and little wind aggravated the problem.”

There is certainly more to the story than “stultifying heat and little wind aggravated the problem.”

To CBF President William Baker’s credit, he mentions Governor Ehrlich’s historic Bay Restoration Fund to address the funding and upgrades of wastewater treatment plants. Moreover Mr. Baker elaborates on positive suggestions and solutions to the agricultural pollution component. "We don't have a problem that needs a solution. We have a solution that needs to be funded," Baker said.

Wonderful. Hopefully this is great evidence that CBF is following through with their September 20 initiative to partner with the agriculture community instead of trashing it.

So just what is the rest of the story?

The Maryland Department of Agriculture says that statewide the nitrogen and phosphorus loads are broken down as follows: Agriculture is responsible for 39% of nitrogen loading and 43% of the phosphorus.

Read this carefully; urban pollution (septic, non-agricultural chemical fertilizer run-off – read: homeowner’s lawns and municipal and industrial wastewater – is responsible for 42% of the nitrogen loading and 44% of the phosphorus.

The balance – atmospheric deposition and natural sources – contributes 19% of the nitrogen loading and 13% of the phosphorus.

Right away, with some balance to the story, the facts develop quite a different perspective than that provided by The Sun.

From 1985–2002 statewide agriculture reduced nitrogen pollution by10 million pounds and phosphorus pollution by 1.04 million pounds.

Since 1984 Maryland farmers have implemented over 18,000 best management practices (BMPs) at a cost of approximately $101 million. Implementation of agricultural BMPs will continue to make a significant contribution to nutrient reductions in those areas of the state where agriculture is the dominant land use – and agriculture is committed to doing more.

Looks like the agricultural community and CBF are getting on the same page. Some one want to let Mr. Pelton know this? He was at the September 20 roll out of the CBF agricultural partnering initiative. What gives?

The rest of the story is that by working together, we can all do so much better. The bay we save may be our own.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.

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