The Senate this fall will consider whether its version of the Farm Bill should contain the sharp increases in Chesapeake Bay cleanup funding that were approved by the House in July.
The House bill includes $212.5 million over five years in conservation funding specifically directed toward curbing nutrient and sediment pollution from farms in the Chesapeake region.
In addition, it boosts spending for other nationwide conservation programs, which could bring tens of millions of additional funds to the region annually. The total value to the Bay over the five-year period covered by the bill could be about $500 million, supporters say.
"This landmark effort represents a major new chapter in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, who earlier had introduced alternative legislation aimed at boosting support for Bay efforts. Parts of that were incorporated in the final bill.
"I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that this legislation passes the Congress and is signed into law so that we can provide critical funds to the farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region to support their conservation efforts and help clean up the Bay," Van Hollen said.
Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient pollution to the Bay, accounting for about two-fifths of the nitrogen and phosphorus. Controlling runoff from farms also tends to be less expensive than controlling other sources.
As a result, cleanup supporters had targeted the Farm Bill-which directs how billions of dollars of agricultural money will be spent over the next five years-as the best way to secure an infusion of federal funds to boost cleanup efforts.
Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had strongly advocated for the increased support, called the bill "a huge step toward achieving the funding levels necessary to provide a healthy environment and clean water today-and for the generations to come. Now it is the Senate's turn to increase federal funding levels for the Bay's rivers and streams."
In addition to funding, the House bill directs the U.S. agriculture secretary to develop a comprehensive plan to protect the Bay watershed by reducing nutrient and sediment runoff to help attain Chesapeake water quality standards and improve habitat for fish and wildlife.
The bill also states that it is the "sense of Congress" that the agriculture secretary should be included on the Chesapeake Executive Council, which guides Bay cleanup activities.
Since the Bay Program was created in 1983, the council has included the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the administrator of the EPA; the mayor of the District of Columbia; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.
Besides the Bay-specific support, the legislation would increase funding for other national conservation programs. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program-the largest single federal program to help implement conservation practices-would get $2 billion a year nationwide. It now gets about half of that.
Other programs, such as the Wetlands Reserve program which helps to fund wetland restoration in flood plains and other areas, would also be expanded.
Those changes are a long way from being final. The Senate is expected to take up its version of the legislation in September, after which differences between the House and Senate bills would have to be resolved. After that, the legislation needs to be signed by President Bush.
One sticking point is that the House bill would still provide billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers who grow certain crops, such as corn, small grains and cotton. Although the bill would limit subsidy payments to those who have adjusted gross incomes below $1 million (the current limit is $3 million) the administration and reformers would like the limit set at $250,000.
Bush has said he would veto the bill if subsidies are not lowered.
The effects of those subsidies go well beyond U.S. borders.
They are a big issue in the latest round of global trade talks, known as the Doha round, in which rich and poor countries have been wrangling over trade barriers. Other countries are looking to the United States-as well as the European Union-to slash agricultural subsidies before they take big steps to open their markets.
"The bill under consideration signals to other countries that the United States is not serious about cutting its agricultural subsidies," said Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.
Many economists believe that without high subsidies in wealthy countries, developing countries could compete in some agricultural markets. Farmers in West Africa, for instance, could compete with the United States in cotton production.
National environmental groups also have lobbied against the subsidies, which they say encourage farmers to plant on marginal land that requires more fertilizer and water and damages the landscape.
Although it's called the "Farm Bill," about two thirds, or $190 billion of the five-year, $286 billion program goes to food stamps and other nutrition programs. Another $42 billion goes to farm subsidies and other farm aid; $29 billion for rural development, research and energy programs; and $25 billion for conservation programs.