Congress overwhelming passed a new Farm Bill that would direct $188 million in new conservation funding to support Bay watershed restoration over the next five years-the largest single infusion of federal support in Chesapeake cleanup history.
In addition, spending increases for an array of national farm conservation programs will mean tens of millions of additional dollars for Bay state farmers looking for help with activities that may range from building manure storage facilities to wetland restoration.
Taken as a whole, the new Farm Bill could come close to doubling the roughly $80 million a year now available to farmers in the watershed through multiple conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It's huge," said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I really do think it has the potential to be a turning point for the Bay."
Farms are the largest single source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Chesapeake, and controlling runoff from croplands and animal feedlots is also one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution to the Bay.
As a result, cleanup advocates had emphasized the importance of working with lawmakers from the region to secure more money in the Farm Bill, which will guide the nation's agricultural policies for the next five years.
"This shows just how successful we can be as a united and coordinated Bay community in the effort to save our national treasure," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the state legislatures of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. "By our congressional representatives rising up in unison, they were able to deliver the federal moneys the Bay needs."
Members of Congress from the region voted overwhelmingly for the measure. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, called it "a major victory" for farmers and the Bay while Rep. Chris van Hollen, D-MD, who had taken a leading role in pushing the measure in the House, called the passage "a great day for Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts."
The funds will pay farmers to plant streamside buffers and nutrient-absorbing cover crops, implement nutrient management plans and take other actions that help protect waterways and keep nutrients and sediment out of the Bay.
The Bay is just a small portion of the massive five-year, $290 billion bill. About two-thirds of the bill would pay for domestic nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. An additional $40 billion is for farm subsidies, while almost $30 billion would fund other initiatives, including conservation measures.
Bay advocates had placed a high priority on the Farm Bill because, unlike most programs that need fresh funding from Congress each year, most funds in the Farm Bill are guaranteed, bypassing the annual appropriations process.
Still, the Farm Bill is not a panacea for the Bay's woes. High commodity prices have spurred an increase in high-runoff crop lands in the Chesapeake region over the last two years. Some provisions of the bill could further promote that trend.
The increased funds also fall short of what's needed to fully achieve nutrient and sediment reduction goals for agricultural lands.
The cost of implementing agricultural portions of Bay cleanup strategies is estimated at about $700 million a year, according to a 2005 report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, although some estimates have pegged the figure as high as $4 billion annually.
Historically, farmers pay about a quarter of the cost of implementing conservation practices, with state and federal agencies splitting the rest, according to figures from the commission.
Using that formula, the region would need about $262 million in federal funds to fully implement farm conservation programs. That leaves the current bill more than $100 million short.
Swanson said that challenges the region to show it can spend the money wisely.
"We must now prove that through proper targeting and investing in cost-effective practices we can make the most of every dollar spent," Swanson said. "We know if we just broadcast it across the watershed it will not work. We will not have enough. We have to be strategic. That is going to be a real test for all of us."
Baker said the influx of federal money also challenges states to increase funding for agricultural programs.
Maryland has created a new Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund to help fund Bay cleanup efforts, with most of the money directed to agricultural programs. The General Assembly this year only provided $25 million of the promised $50 million in annual funding initially promised, although lawmakers have pledged to fully fund the program starting next year.
In Virginia, a coalition of agricultural and environmental groups called for a $100-million-a-year commitment to support agricultural conservation programs, but the General Assembly provided only $20 million for the coming year, and none after that.
In Pennsylvania, a coalition of groups has called for a seven-year, $890 million program to support Bay cleanup efforts, of which $390 million would go into farm programs. The General Assembly needs to pass a budget by June 30.
"I think the passage of this bill puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Pennsylvania and Virginia to quickly pass legislation that will provide the matching money," Baker said. "To not do so would be cutting off their congressional representatives and senators at the knees, those who battled for this."
The Bay Program estimates that agricultural lands produce about 40 percent of the nitrogen, 45 percent of the phosphorus and 62 percent of the sediment that reaches the Chesapeake each year.
When they reach the Bay, the nutrients spur algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching critical underwater grass beds and also draw oxygen needed by fish and shellfish from the water. Sediment clouds the water and smothers bottom habitats.
Programs that promote fencing livestock out of streams or the reduced tillage of fields are among those that can help to curb the amount of nutrients and sediment reaching the Chesapeake.
Promoting conservation programs in the Chesapeake region has historically suffered not just from lack of adequate funds, but also from the poor coordination and oversight by agencies, according to a joint report released by the Inspectors General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA in November 2006.
The report said the USDA needed to better coordinate its multiple conservation programs to better support the Bay cleanup, do a better job targeting its programs to areas where they would have the greatest impact, and promote practices that were high priorities for the Bay cleanup among farmers.
Provisions of the new Farm Bill that set aside $188 million over the next five years for a new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program may allow that to happen.
The bill calls for the program to place special emphasis on "innovative approaches" to improving water quality and wildlife habitat in the Susquehanna, Shenandoah, Potomac and Patuxent river basins. The lessons learned from those projects could be applied elsewhere in the watershed, according to legislative language accompanying the bill.
Those who worked on the bill say the language was designed to allow more money to be used for technical assistance for Bay region farmers. Several recent reports have cited the lack of people on the ground to work with farmers as a major impediment to controlling agricultural runoff.
The language also gives the Bay region unprecedented flexibility to ensure the money is effectively spent by targeting "hot spots" and promoting the most cost-effective practices, Swanson said.
"Neither one of those is politically easy," she added. "It is easiest to just spread the money around so everyone gets something equal. But pollution, and therefore pollution control, is not an equal thing."
Besides the $188 million specifically directed to the Bay, nationwide funding is being increased for most other agricultural conservation programs. The region's share of those programs should bring an addition $252 million over the next five years to the six states that drain into the Bay: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia and New York.
While national conservation funding in the legislation will grow by about $4 billion over the next five years, some individual programs will suffer. The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take marginal land out of production and has widely been seen as a boon to wildlife, will be limited to 32 million acres nationwide, down from the current 39.2 million.
The Wetland Reserve Program, which helps farmers restore and protect wetlands had been set to expire but was renewed. But the program is supported at lower levels than in the past.
Some of the benefits of the bill may be reduced because of the current agricultural market. Record high commodity prices have sparked a sharp increase in the amount of row crops-primarily corn, soybeans and wheat-being planted in the region, according to USDA figures.
Those crops tend to produce more nutrient runoff than other types of cropland.
"They are increasing conservation spending, but we are increasing the need for conservation spending," said Tom Simpson, a soil scientist with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who chairs the Bay Program's Nutrient Subcommittee. Still, he added, the bill was "a major accomplishment" for the Bay.
The legislation also increased subsidies for some crops, which could provide an incentive to maintain high levels of crop land even if market prices decline. In addition, a change in how crop insurance and disaster payments are handled could promote additional crop planting on marginal lands-areas where yields are typically lower and runoff higher.
"If this land were really good at growing row crops, it would have been converted to row crops a long time ago," said Sara Hopper, an attorney working on farm policy with the Environmental Defense Fund and a former staff member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"When you have very high prices, the math starts to look different to people," she added. "That is really exacerbated by the availability of crop insurance and disaster payments in particular because if you have a loss, the government is going to bail you out. That really takes away any disincentive there might be."
Citing the bill's failure to significantly reform the farm subsidy programs and other concerns, President Bush vetoed the bill May 22, but Congress was expected to easily override the veto.
Highlights Of Farm Bill Provisions That Benefit The Bay
These are estimates of additional conservation funding over the next five years above the levels in the 2002 Farm Bill. Funding for the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program is specific to the Bay watershed. Estimates for other programs are the total estimated statewide increases above current levels for Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York based on historic allocation patterns for those programs. Those funds are not restricted to the Bay watershed.
- $188 million for the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program. This initiative specifically promotes innovative conservation practices that will improve water quality and habitat within the watershed. The Susquehanna, Potomac, Shenandoah and Patuxent watersheds are designated as priority areas.
Existing Programs Allocations From National Working Lands Programs
- $126.1 million in new funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP is the USDA's largest conservation program, paying up to 75 percent of the cost for a variety of environmental practices that producers would be unlikely to adopt without such an incentive.
- $44 million in new funding from the Conservation Security Program. This program rewards farmers who maintain consistently high levels of conservation management on working farmlands.
- $12 million in new funding from Agricultural Management Assistance. This program provides cost-share assistance to agricultural producers who voluntarily address issues such as water management, water quality and erosion control by incorporating conservation into their farming operations.
Allocations From National Easement Programs
- $54 million in new funding from the Farmland Protection Program. This program provides matching funds to purchase development rights that ensure productive farm and ranch lands stay in agriculture.
- $9.2 million from the Wetlands Reserve Program. This program provides technical and financial support to landowners who want to restore, enhance and protect wetlands on their property.
- 18.5 million from the Grasslands Reserve Program. This program helps to preserve and enhance vulnerable rangeland and pastures so they will not be converted to cropland or other uses.
- $1 million from the Healthy Forests Reserve Program. This program helps landowners restore and enhance forest ecosystems to promote the recovery of threatened and endangered species, improve biodiversity or enhance carbon sequestration.
- * $12.5 million in reduced funds from the Conservation Reserve Program. This program pays farmers who take marginal lands out of production. It also includes the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program which, in partnership with states, pays additional funds to make environmental improvements on those lands, such as stream buffer plantings.
* Maximum CRP acres nationally will decline from 39.2 million to 32 million acres in the new bill. This figure represents a proportional decline for the region. But the entire Bay watershed is now listed as a CRP priority area, and many CRP acres are actually part of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which is carried out in partnership with the states to help restore stream corridors. As a result, acreages may not decline in this region.
- Source: Chesapeake Bay Foundation