Rush Job To Retool Maryland's Phosphorus Management Tool

Retooling Maryland's phosphorus management tool complicated by administrative 'hoops'; foretells future for other Chesapeake Bay states and others.

Published on: Jul 19, 2013

If you've never wrestled with lawmakers, state administrators and environmental lawyers over regulatory rules, count it as a blessing. But that's one of the most recent challenges and charges for Maryland Department of Agriculture and University of Maryland.

The Ag Department is trying to update regulations to have revised phosphorus management rules in place for the fall planting season. But it has many administrative hoops to jump through to do so – all coming due with the rising pressure to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Last week, MDA officials requested emergency status for proposed changes to the Maryland Phosphorus Management Tool. The changes, noted below, require approval of Maryland General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review. American Agriculturist asked University of Maryland Agronomist Joshua McGrath to decipher the proposed changes from bureaucratic legalese to farmer language.

NOT A SIMPLE TASK: Refinements to Marylands new PMT tool for managing manure, poultry litter and biosolids are complicated by the states administrative review procedures.
NOT A SIMPLE TASK: Refinements to Maryland's new PMT tool for managing manure, poultry litter and biosolids are complicated by the state's administrative review procedures.

"The regulation changes are relatively minor from a farmer's perspective," reports this environmental sciences specialist. "A table in the University of Maryland Extension document referred to '50-foot permanent vegetated buffer meeting USDA-NRCS standards' and '50-foot riparian buffer'. The terms were redundant, as the NRCS buffer includes the riparian buffer. So we just dropped the riparian buffer reference.

"The only other change that might affect farmers was a typo in an equation used to calculate the P solubility coefficient for amendments (i.e. biosolids, manure). Nobody uses this equation other than a very few of the biosolids applicators."

"Only a very few people will be significantly impacted by the new PMT -- those with really high soil test P in ditch drained systems on the lower shore," adds McGrath. "We hope the real impact will be that the tool will encourage adoption of new best management practices that protect soil and water quality. The only way to tell is to watch how it performs once it's released and continue to address any issues that we see."

The bigger plan
The original Phosphorus Site Index was replaced with the Phosphorus Management Tool, reflecting new research, according to MDA officials. The PMT environmental risk assessment tool identifies areas of excess P in the soil and where a high loss potential exists.

It allows users, explain ag department experts, to evaluate management options for reducing risk of P losses from farm fields into nearby waterways. Nutrient management plans developed or updated after the effective date will be required to use the new PMT. Training on it for nutrient management consultants began on July 9.

The PMT is one element of Maryland's Watershed Implementation Plan, the federally-mandated document outlining specific steps the state will take to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Research funded by the Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board already suggests that further refinements in PMT calculations may be warranted. But that would reactivate the whole administrative review process – further tangling the regulatory web.