While Delaware's poultry industry brings millions of dollars into the state's economy, it also creates a lot of chicken manure.
The manure, also called chicken litter, can be a valuable fertilizer to farmers growing corn and other crops. But it can also be too much of a good thing.
If the manure is overused on fields, the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous are washed into the water system, harming water quality and leading to fish kills.
Three years ago, the state began a mandatory nutrient management program to work with farmers on how much manure to use and to help chicken growers dispose of the manure from their birds.
By 2007, farmers and certain other businesses, such as golf courses, are required to have a nutrient management plan for their land on file with the state Department of Agriculture.
The plan, which the state pays for, takes into account the soil's makeup, the nutrients of the commercial fertilizer or manure and when the nutrients will be applied to the fields. A farmer can follow a plan to know how much manure or commercial fertilizer to use without harming the environment.
The program is being phased in over five years. Earlier this month the state began sending letters to property owners included in the third phase. Those owners must have plans developed by Jan. 1.
"The goal is to prevent over-application of nutrients from commercial fertilizers and manure," said William Rohrer, who administers the program for the Department of Agriculture.
The problem of nutrients running off into the water system is a regional issue.
In a report released Wednesday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said alternative uses must be found for manure produced by livestock in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and animal feeding practices should be changed to make their waste less polluting.
Agriculture is the largest source of nitrogen and phosphorous in the bay, and manure is the single largest contributor, the foundation said.
While the amount of manure produced over the past 15 to 20 years has not changed substantially, the amount of nutrients it contains has gone up. That's because chicken manure is higher in nutrients than cow manure, and poultry production has increased while milk and beef production have decreased, the report said.
Ed Lewandowski, a member of the state's Nutrient Management Commission, said excess nitrogen and phosphorous can lead to rapid growth of algae in bodies of water. When the algae begins to decompose, it creates bacteria, depriving fish of needed oxygen in the water, leading to large fish kills.
"When you have an excess of nutrients in the water, you have major problems," said Mr. Lewandowski, the education and outreach coordinator at the Center for the Inland Bays.
"That is what led to the major fish kills in the inland bays."
Mr. Rohrer said Delaware's program is ahead of schedule. Though it is beginning just its third phase, the program has developed plans for 72 percent (400,000 acres) of properties covered by the state's nutrient management law.
When this round is over, Mr. Rohrer said, the program expects to have covered about 85 percent. The law only requires that 60 percent have plans in place by Jan. 1.
Owners have been volunteering their properties since the program began instead of waiting for the state to tell them they need to develop a plan.
"It appears we are ahead of our 2007 deadline," Mr. Rohrer said.
"It is easy when people step up to the plate. It will take a little more effort for the last 20 percent."
Delaware chicken houses generate about 300,000 tons of chicken litter a year, Mr. Rohrer said. About 200,000 tons can be used safely on Delaware farms. The program is looking at what to do with the remaining 100,000.
"It's our job to deal with that last 100,000," he said.
"If there is a farm that needs poultry litter, we will give it to them. It is a great resource when applied properly."
In 2003, the state relocated 65,469 tons, Mr. Rohrer said, but is working on ways to increase that. The manure is used on some Delmarva farms, he said, but often goes to areas with few chicken houses, such as mushroom farms in Pennsylvania.
The program, which is funded in the state's annual operating budget, financially assists farmers with costs related to relocating the manure, such as having the chicken houses cleaned and the litter hauled to an alternative site.