Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed stand to get more financial help from the federal government to reduce polluted runoff from fields and feedlots under the new Farm Bill passed by Congress in December.Bay advocates said that they’re hopeful that the level of funding will rebound under the 2018 Farm Bill. But whether it comes close to replacing what was lost will depend on watershed farmers and their partner organizations submitting competitive proposals. (Dave Harp)

The legislation, which replaces the 2014 Farm Bill, tweaked funding for farm conservation programs in a way that significantly increases the pot of federal money for which Bay watershed farmers and partnering organizations can compete.

Specifically, it triples to $300 million the funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which provides financial and technical assistance for multi-state or watershed-scale projects. It also increases from 35 percent to 50 percent the share of that funding that’s available to one of eight designated “critical conservation areas,” including the Chesapeake.

Those provisions track with legislation introduced in 2017 by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, to revive federal agricultural funding for Bay restoration.

“This new investment will help ensure that our Bay economy continues to thrive and that Marylanders and tourists can enjoy this treasure for generations to come,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

Nevertheless, the amount of federal funding available to the Bay watershed under the revised regional conservation program is likely to be significantly less than it had been from 2008 through 2014, when Congress funneled $47 million a year on average to the region under a specific Chesapeake Bay Watershed initiative.

The 2014 Farm Bill replaced that Chesapeake initiative and its guaranteed funding with the RCPP, which awarded grants on a competitive basis to a much broader array of applicants nationwide. The amount of funding going to the watershed subsequently declined dramatically, to around $13 million annually.

Bay advocates said that they’re hopeful that the level of funding will rebound under the 2018 Farm Bill. But whether it comes close to replacing what was lost will depend on watershed farmers and their partner organizations submitting competitive proposals. 

“It won’t be as easy as it was [until 2014] because that was literally given to us,” said Beth McGee, director of science and agricultural policy at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But she said that Congress, in addition to providing more money, changed how the regional conservation program operates in ways that she believes will encourage more and better applications for funding from the watershed.

“There is a bigger slice of the pie available to us,” she said. “So, theoretically, our chances are better. But, again, it depends on the proposals going in, and it’s competitive still.”

The new Farm Bill tinkered with other conservation programs in ways that might help the Bay as well, advocates said. The Conservation Stewardship Program, which according to the Chesapeake Bay Commission concentrated its activities in the Midwest, was cut in favor of more broad-based efforts. Chief among those is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to install various land management practices aimed at alleviating natural resource problems.

The legislation also gradually increases the scope of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to replace crops on highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land with more resource-conserving vegetation. The program will expand its support from 24 million acres to 27 million acres by 2023, though McGee noted that’s still far smaller than the 32 million acres of past Farm Bills.

The Chesapeake watershed should benefit from yet another provision that enhances what farmers can get paid to plant trees along streams and rivers and keep their livestock out of the water.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program will increase cost-shared federal payments to farmers for putting in stream fencing, water crossings and other measures to exclude animals from waterways, McGee said. It also will boost payments to farmers to cover the full cost of maintaining forested buffers along their streams. Bay states are lagging in their efforts to plant wooded stream buffers, and failure to cover maintenance costs has been a factor in keeping farmers from participating. 

McGee credited Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA, with pushing for those changes and said that they “help ensure adequate and fair compensation to landowners willing to implement forest buffers — one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution from agriculture.”
Lastly, the new Farm Bill increased funding for purchasing conservation easements on agricultural land, including those that preserve wetlands.