Chesapeake Executive Council members signed a joint letter calling on senators from the Bay states to support changes in the Farm Bill that would dramatically boost conservation funding in the Bay region.

³Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region have demonstrated that they want to do their part to improve water quality, enhance wildlife habitat, reduce harmful sprawl and help restore the Bay,” they said in the Dec. 7 letter.

“We are at a critical crossroads with our efforts to restore the nation’s treasure, the Chesapeake Bay,” they stated. “Recent monitoring and modeling information clearly documents that more must be done to reduce nutrients entering the Bay.”

õhe letter was signed by Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, and Chesapeake Bay Commission Chair Brian Frosh. The only Council member not signing was EPA Administrator Christie Whitman who, as a federal employee, cannot lobby Congress.

It was sent to the senators from all three Bay states.

The letter said that while “solid programs” exist to help farmers and the Bay, “they are not adequately funded.” In particular, they urged Farm Bill support for “new approaches to reduce nutrient impacts from agriculture.”

The Senate version of the Farm Bill includes funds for a pilot program in the Bay watershed that would pay farmers to use less fertilizer and offer them insurance against lost production that might result.

For crops such as corn, recommended fertilizer application levels are aimed at achieving maximum yields under optimal conditions that rarely occur, allowing excess nutrients to run off the land. In most — but not all — years, agricultural scientists say that farmers could achieve the same harvests with less fertilizer.

Action on the Senate version of the bill stalled in December, but debate was expected to resume when Congress returns in January. The main Senate version would dramatically expand conservation spending for states — such as those in the Bay region — which usually get little agricultural money compared to Midwestern and Southern states.

For the Bay states, it would boost funding for agricultural conservation programs from $20 million to more than $140 million a year. The change would make more money available to farmers who install stream buffers, take steps to control runoff or improve animal waste management.

õt would also provide more money for farmland preservation. And, for the first time, it would allow Department of Agriculture money to be used for permanent conservation easements on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program — which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive lands out of production — rather than being limited to easements of 10 to 15 years.

The Senate version would also support research on the potential of alternative crops, such as switchgrass, for energy production and carbon sequestration. Some believe that encouraging the growth of switchgrass would help the Bay because it requires fewer nutrients and has an extensive root system that minimizes erosion.

If the Senate bill is approved, differences would still have to be worked out with a House version of the legislation, which offers less support for conservation.