Agricultural Solutions

The connection between nutrients, runoff, and water quality


Over the last few decades, the successes of regulations like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have led to improvements in air and water quality. With recent changes in the political climate, and with some seeking to reduce regulations and cut funding sources, many groups are looking at how policy and funding changes might affect existing programs.

The Cost of a Clean Outdoors
One group that voices concern from its constituent members is the not-for-profit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), founded in 2002. Chief conservation officer Christy Plumer says the partnership has grown to include 52 member organizations representing millions of sportsmen and women who are strongly behind the efforts needed to ensure all Americans who hunt, fish, and pursue outdoor recreation “have access to the quality habitats and continued health of these places.”

“Which is why we care so much about clean water and habitat,” adds Plumer, citing that recent proposed budget cuts to programs are very alarming to members and partner associations, which include Trout Unlimited, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, the National Wildlife Federation, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“We find these cuts very devastating to a lot the programs that we care about, in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, for example. At an annual figure of $646 billion and supporting more than 6 million jobs, the outdoor recreation industry is a major financial contributor to our economy, so clean water and healthy habitat is critical.”

Plumer says that members see many bullets in recent proposals, and “which one of these do you dodge?” she asks. They are concerned at the EPA budget cuts, the rollback of landmark conservation laws that may have no replacements “to sustain what we have now,” and more. There needs to be a balance, she says, between regulations to protect the environment and business interests.

“We’re focusing on where things are headed,” she says, which includes thinking about rural areas. For example, the Farm Bill includes recommendations for voluntary conservation practices. “By educating people on how to tap into these programs, we can achieve positive results, compared to going through a regulatory approach.”

The TRCP membership is very concerned about clean water as well. “In the context of stormwater, our community tends to focus on the remote areas, which are the headwaters. We are very interested in proper management of upwater and headland streams, and this affects ranching, farming, and foresters. If we have reduced regulation, then we believe the Farm Bill [voluntary] programs need to be ramped up. If there are budget cuts, then not only are regulations reduced, but programs that could have been leveraged to fill that gap can go away.”

Water Knows No Boundaries
When Ohio’s infamous Cuyahoga River caught fire in the 1970s, the wake-up call to address pollution was heard around the world. Today, thanks to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and other national and local legislation, the Great Lakes, and Lake Erie in particular, are enjoying something of a renaissance.

But problems of nutrient-laden runoff, bacteria, and invasive species continue to plague the world’s largest freshwater sources.

In 2016, the city of Toledo temporarily lost its drinking water supply because of harmful levels of toxins from an algal bloom near its intake in Lake Erie. Despite significant improvements and an extensive menu of nutrient-reduction programs, agricultural runoff still plagues the Maumee River feeding into Lake Erie. Responding in mid-March to the proposed cuts to EPA and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown said the cuts “will cost Ohio jobs and jeopardize public health by putting the well-being of Lake Erie at risk.”

Republican Senator Rob Portman said, “I have long championed the GLRI program, and I am continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie including preserving this critical program and its funding.”

According to EPA, the cost of toxic algal blooms—which includes the need for increased filtration, loss of fish populations, and lost income from recreation—dents the national economy by $2 billion. It’s not a one-sided issue as Canadian waters are affected as well.

Mark Burrows, physical scientist and project manager with the International Joint Commission (IJC) in Windsor, ON, comments on the progress from sustained Great Lakes funding from the bi-national partnership between the US and Canada. The work of both countries is guided by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), most recently revised in 2012, which provides a framework for US and Canadian programs to restore and protect the Great Lakes as well as reporting and assessment of Great Lakes activities.

“Areas where the governments have made significant progress include restoring and de-listing several areas of concern by funding cleanup operations to improve water quality, remove toxic sediment, restore habitat and fish populations, and reduce the levels of contamination in fish and wildlife,” says Burrows. “Action by the US to build permanent electrical and physical barriers to prevent the migration of invasive species, especially the Asian Carp, should be applauded. Grants from the GLRI have been crucial in funding these efforts that now keep invasive species out of the lakes in areas where rivers and canals create a pathway to the Great Lakes—in Lake Michigan around the Chicago area and Lake Erie through the Maumee River.”

Burrows notes that GLRI funding is channeled through EPA sources, which help coordinate federal and state programs to ensure there is no duplication of efforts. There are multiple sets of water-quality requirements at the federal, state, and local levels that impact many segments of the Great Lakes community, including maritime shipping regulations. “It can be confusing, and this coordination of the use of US GLRI funds is important. Canada and the US also coordinate implementation of the GLWQA through the Great Lakes Executive Committee led by EPA and Environment Canada—an important role to ensure everyone is “rowing in the same direction,” he says.

He notes that because the IJC is an independent body, set up in 1909 to avoid binational water disputes over the 5,500 miles of border, the commission’s job “is not to comment on specific domestic legislation, regulations, or budgets—just results. What we can talk about is our assessment of the progress of government programs and measures to meet the objectives of the GLWQA.” He says that the commission recently invited public input on its Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report. In the report, the IJC commended many successes under the GLWQA, including setting targets for Lake Erie phosphorous reduction. Nonetheless, the report also notes that “the water quality of western and central Lake Erie is unsatisfactory and unacceptable,” and “new mandatory protections should supplement voluntary initiatives to reduce phosphorous loadings.”

The take-home message, Burrows says, is that if enough public comment comes in over the report findings, it may potentially strengthen the case for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and encourage a sustainable EPA budget as it comes to a Congressional vote. This would allow the progress to continue to address threats to water quality, and to restore and protect the Great Lakes for generations to come.


Poultry Manure Technology Heats Up
Maryland poultry farmers can benefit from a unique grant opportunity to manage animal manure, a problem they have been struggling with for decades. Offered through the Resource Conservation programs of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), the Animal Waste Technology Fund (AWTF) helps farmers with beef, dairy, hog, and poultry waste.

Louise Lawrence, program manager and chief of the Office of Resource Conservation, explains the genesis of the fund, which wasn’t always under the MDA’s purview. “The Animal Waste Technology Fund was authorized in 1998 as part of the Water Quality Improvement Act under the Department of Budget and Economic Development [DBED]. We began to anticipate that if farms ran across impediments to utilizing animal manure for crop fertilization, they would need alternatives or options to repurpose use of the manure. And new solutions had to offer both sound economic and environmental benefits.”

DBED maintained the AWTF for two years, but no funding was appropriated after fiscal year 2000. In recognition of challenges posed by new nutrient management requirements governing the management and use of manure, the legislature gave MDA the authority to administer AWTF in 2013 and, Lawrence says, “appropriated funding beginning in fiscal year 2014.”


Through the Resource Conservation program, the AWTF offers grants for demonstration of new technologies that provide alternative strategies for managing or using animal manure. Individuals or companies who apply for these grants must have a proven technology previously implemented, address water-quality protection objectives, and secure a demonstration site in Maryland.

Ideally, these projects should benefit farms in all phases of production. By using manure to generate electricity or energy, producers may gain benefits from a technology’s use on the farm or from the sale of electricity. Energy produced from the manure can help power the production process by heating animal enclosures or providing electricity for lighting, pumping, and more. Once these needs are met, energy can be sold back to the grid.

“We have a highly viable animal industry in Maryland, particularly poultry,” says Lawrence. “Addressing the nutrient management issues can result in an alignment of several state goals that merge the objectives of animal and crop production with natural resource conservation and water-quality protection.”

Lawrence says the program seeks cost-effective, sustainable technologies that are transferable. “Our objective with these programs is to make sure that the technologies answer business and conservation needs by aligning the economies that make sense for different farmers with different farm situations. Plus, we know that these demonstration projects will have growing pains, nothing is perfect out of the gate, so the projects are funded with the expectation that they may take longer to implement and need more funds than the eventual business model.

“But the final costs of the technology have to be reasonable, so that farmers who invest in these have a realistic time frame to pay for them, which means that the developers must demonstrate their commitment as to their efficient operation and maintenance.

Poultry Powers Up the Farm
One recipient of the AWTF grants who has been through the trials and tribulations of “getting it right” now reports his project as a benchmark success and first of its kind in the US. After a career with the local power company, Maryland eastern shore resident Bob Murphy decided to enter farming as a “retirement vocation.” He says he had an opportunity to purchase nearby family farm property, and he then erected a chicken house to enter the poultry business. It wasn’t long before he acquired more land and built more houses—and all the while the poultry litter was piling up.

“I realized we had to find a way to do something that was more than a band-aid solution with this manure. The state nutrient management requirements were increasingly tighter on phosphorous, so it was clear that we had to put a plan in place to take care of the problem differently. Even though we were disposing of it, and it was being hauled away in trucks, I could foresee the day when that would not be a long-term solution.”

Enter the innovators of BHSL Energy Centre, whose Limerick, Ireland-based company had developed a technology that made good use of the litter by burning it and converting it to energy.

Managing director Declan O’Connor says the idea came from his own family poultry business. “We had been in poultry farming since 1962, and then in the mid 1990s the Ireland EPA said you can no longer spread manure like you once did. The watersheds couldn’t support the contamination, and this suddenly became a huge problem as we had to ship it two hours away to comply with nutrient management regulations.”

O’Connor says his brother Jack, then a schoolteacher, worked with the University of Limerick and investigated the potential of a technology that would burn the litter through a novel combustion process. After years of family investment and manufacturing trials to perfect the process, they put a prototype on Jack’s farm, and then on other farms.

“At first we created hot water to heat the chicken sheds, but today we are installing heat and power systems that both heat and power the poultry operation. But just as we thought we were launched on our commercial journey, the UK environmental people said, ‘This is a waste product—you have to abide by waste regulations.’ We explained that in Ireland it falls under animal regulation, and large centralized power plants were never going to be able to work on this small scale.”

Working with the European Union (EU), O’Connor says, they were able to help write new rules that were adopted into EU policy that would protect animals, humans, and the environment. Next, after attending a manure energy summit in the US, O’Connor saw the application of his technology in meeting several challenges of the large-scale US poultry operations: litter disposal, power, and nutrient management.

“Our farms are quite small by comparison; we have 20,000 birds, whereas Murphy in Maryland has 160,000 birds,” says O’Connor.

When BHSL invited US senators from Maryland to visit Ireland and observe the process in action in 2011, O’Connor says, the ball got rolling in their favor. “They were very excited and said, ‘We’ve seen the future; we need to bring this to Maryland,’ and the rest is history. The BHSL Energy Centre then became a candidate for development and onsite testing with the Animal Waste program.”

Murphy confirms that things weren’t perfect out the gate, and that it took a few months before the process worked out all the kinks. “But I kept telling everyone who was negative about this working that I knew it would work. We had a grant of about a million dollars, and BHSL had sunk their own $3 million into it, and I said we’re going to prove to the state that this works.”

After the litter is collected in a tank, O’Connor says, it goes through a burning process run by diesel fuel that superheats the product. Hot gases from the closed burning unit rise through negative pressure and are pulled across a heat exchanger that heats water. The superheated litter reduces to just 8% ash, and the ash particles are collected as a valuable PNK product to augment fertilizers.

By heating the poultry houses with the radiator-style hot water system, with fans blowing across the pipes to deliver hot, dry air to the birds, “the humidity is vastly reduced, and this also reduces ammonia and contributes to a healthier flock and higher production,” says Murphy.

BHSL reports that the more than one billion chickens produced in the eastern shore region—representing 12% of US poultry production—generate 1.2 million tons of ­poultry manure. After decades of manure spreading, the fields surrounding the Chesapeake Bay are now overloaded with phosphorous.

BHSL’s is the only technology that meets both US and EU environmental regulations. The developers anticipate that the success of this pilot project in Maryland will pave the way for future installations. And Murphy likes to amaze visitors. “I’ve had people come out here to see the operation and they are blown away. I’ve told others to stop trying to fight the manure problem and get on board—this is the answer,” he affirms.

Lawrence adds the process doesn’t get rid of the nutrients, “but what it does, is manage them so it becomes a discrete energy development process.”

O’Connor says, “Every 1,000 birds will leave behind 1.2 tons of manure. This translates to each bird producing enough litter to convert to keep three birds warm, and ­protecting the environment in the bargain.”


A Success Story Threatened?
The AWTF is just one of the opportunities that MDA offers to help farmers comply with nutrient management regulations. MDA conservation grants also include a cover crop program that pays farmers an average of $25 per acre for harvested cover crops and $45 per acre for non-harvested crops. Cover crops tie up nutrients that remain in the soil after crop harvest, and the cover crop vegetation and root system adds erosion protection, holds water, and reduces runoff. MDA provides payments to defray farmers out-of-pocket expenses because of the public water-quality benefits cover crops provide.

MDA resource conservation programs also assist producers with high levels of phosphorous in their soils who cannot utilize the manure their animals produce for crop production, and therefore face the dilemma of what to do with tons of manure. The MDA Manure Transport program and matching service helps cover the cost to transport the excess manure to facilities or farms that can safely use the product. MDA helps farmers with excessive manure by matching them with farms or facilities that can use the resource.

“It’s essential that the state farm economy be sustainable and that we find new options to protect the environment, particularly on our eastern shore, which in some locations will have to address high soil phosphorous levels,” says Lawrence.

She adds that EPA funding plays a major role in supporting technical assistance to farmers for nutrient management. EPA funding also provides administrative support for some MDA cost-share programs, outreach and education, and total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) and watershed implementation plans (WIPs). If Department of Agriculture conservation programs are cut, she says, there is concern that “it will have a major impact on state implementation of water-quality programs and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.”

It’s All About the Science
On the opposite end of the state, Keith Eshleman, environmental scientist and University of Maryland professor at Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, MD, offers his perspective on the impact of the projected budget cuts to nutrient management and other environmental programs.

“The first thing I would say is, let’s not panic yet. The big piece of this will be decided when Congress sits down to vote on the budget, so it can be a very different story. Years ago, Ronald Reagan came in and heard about these US Geologic Survey water centers in each state, and he thought they were a line item that could be abolished. However, it turned out that Congress loved these federal monies that went to each state to help them address water problems. Legislators ­created a political blockade, and nothing happened.”

He adds that despite predictions, what isn’t going to happen should also be noted. “There hasn’t been a new coal plant built in 20 years. We’re not going to suddenly see coal-fired plants being built, because we have other competitive fuels like natural gas. This is so cheap now it negates any ideas of expanding on coal.”

But Eshleman is concerned that cuts to the Office of Research and Development (ORD) could be a serious threat to continuing “the science that informs how we make decisions about the environment.

He cites one project funded by ORD that made a fasci­nating discovery. “In the ’80s we got this grant and we looked at how the gypsy moth that had crossed the ­Mason-Dixon line was affecting Maryland and Virginia. What we ­discovered was in the process of their massive defoliation of forests, they produced gobs of fecal-loaded nitrate. It looked like the concentrations on the forest floor had gone up fifty-fold from normal. But we didn’t know really what was ­happening until the following spring and began data collection data on these concentrations.”

He explains that as the forests were defoliated, the caterpillar droppings were leaching into the water, the air was not being cleaned due to lack of foliage, and it took years for the damage to repair itself.

“Politicians always want to know what are you going to do with funds to show value, but sometimes you don’t know what you’ll find, and we have to be allowed these investigations. That’s what science is all about—the discoveries,” he says.

New Science Merges Air and Water Data
And discovery is all about creativity, being open to possibilities and looking at information with a new perspective, as Eshleman recently proved. He cites findings from his and co-author Robert D. Sabo’s 2016 Atmospheric Environment report. The study examined a 30-year trend in the nitrate content of waters of the Upper Potomac River Basin (UPRB), a watershed with significance for Chesapeake Bay water quality.

He explains the premise of their study, Declining nitrate-N yields in the Upper Potomac River Basin: What is really driving progress under the Chesapeake Bay restoration? whose findings brought very good news to the scientific community tackling water quality.

“Implementation of best management practices in wastewater and industrial arenas, spurred by the Clean Water Act in 1972 and subsequently amended in 1977 and 1987, has made positive impact toward cleaner water in the bay. Yet lacking similar regulatory policy and enforcement mechanisms within the CWA, agricultural and urban nonpoint-source pollution have been a continuing hurdle.”

Eshleman says nutrient mitigation and nitrogen reduction are an ongoing frustration for the Chesapeake Bay. Nonetheless, he says, good progress has been made in recent years, helped by bay’s TMDL. A surprising new discovery links the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment (with additional controls added since then) restricting nitrous oxide emissions to improved water quality and lower levels of nitrogen.

“What we knew beforehand was that the agricultural BMPs and wastewater improvements do account for declining nitrogen in some Chesapeake rivers, but the greatest percentage of N yield declines were observed in predominantly forested watersheds,” he says.

Scientists had been finding steep declines in atmospheric N inputs to the bay watershed—a result of the federal NOx controls, less N in the air and therefore less in the water—and Eshelman affirms this “dwarfs any declines in inputs of agricultural N sources such as manure and fertilizers.”

The finding raised an important question: Could the lower atmospheric N itself explain improvements in both forested and mixed-land-use watersheds? In other words, could the effects of the Clean Air Act have caused statistically significant water-quality benefits? After analyzing multiple decades of water quality data from diverse data sets, the researchers reported an unequivocal, “Yes, it has.”

“We found that the reductions in atmospheric N emissions were the primary driver to water-quality improvement across the UPRB. The relationship between air and water is clearly confirmed. I call all this good news from these regulations, and we have the science to prove these policies are working.

“What people must grasp is that these are all related factors. It’s important to embrace the idea that policies focused on one aspect of the environment have the potential to deliver other benefits elsewhere. Lower emissions from cars and industrial plants is a victory for air, and now we have evidence it’s a victory for water quality as well. Plus, we’ve seen a huge benefit in human health with decreasing deaths from asthma.”

However, he cautions that in the face of relaxed air-quality regulations, “We can expect an immediate reversal of these positive trends.”

He says, “The point is, if you stop making these observations and monitoring the climate—the air or water—you lose the capacity to understand the dynamics of what’s going on. Unintended consequences are always out there, and it’s our job to be observant and find these.”

Eshleman says he is nonetheless sympathetic to the objections to “regulation for regulation’s sake.”

“If business can be relieved of extraneous paperwork—and I think we can get rid of unnecessary boilerplate and paperwork that doesn’t achieve any positive effects—we can develop other tactics, and that helps investing in projects. We can look at incentives or tax credits for business also—the carrot-and-stick approach can be a strategy. But we must have science as the basis to achieve societal goals, and we must have the means and opportunity to support science to pursue those goals. Then it’s a win for everyone.” EC_bug_web


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