Bay Program efforts to protect streambanks and wetlands will get a boost from a major overhaul of the Conservation Reserve Program recently announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The program makes annual rental payments to farmers who sign contracts to take environmentally sensitive agricultural lands out of production for 10 to 15 years. In the past, the program had been used primarily to protect large amounts of erodible farmland.

Under proposed changes, only the most highly erodible land would remain eligible for the program, which has a 36-million-acre cap nationwide. Instead, much of the emphasis is being switched to encourage the protection of streambanks, wetlands and wildlife habitat.

"Benefits of this proposal will flow not only to farmers from the High Plains to the Mississippi Delta, but to crabbers on the Chesapeake Bay, boaters on the Great Lakes, wildlife enthusiasts across the country and anyone who lives and works in the cities and towns that dot our inland waterways," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

The changes could bolster efforts to promote buffers along streams in the watershed. The Chesapeake Executive Council on Oct. 10 set of long-range goal of ensuring that all 110,000 miles of streams and rivers in the watershed are eventually lined with a vegetated buffer to filter runoff and improve aquatic habitat. After forests, agriculture is the largest land use in the Bay watershed.

Nationally, 36 million acres are enrolled in the program. But the bulk of all CRP contracts, covering 24 million acres, will have expired by next fall. The USDA is taking advantage of that window to overhaul the definition of what land is eligible for new contracts.

Those proposed rules were published in the Federal Register on Sept. 23. The public has until Nov. 7 to comment on the rules, then Congress has 60 days to consider and possibly amend them.

USDA is also allowing a "continuous sign-up" for farmers who who want to enroll certain types of high priority lands, such as riparian buffers and shallow water areas for wildlife, in the program.

Before, farmers had to go through a bid process to enroll land in the program, which limited the amount of land protected and sometimes meant farmers needed to accept less money than prescribed in guidelines if they wanted to get their land in the program.

Now, "if the land that you have meets the qualifications and is deemed eligible, then you're automatically in," said Tom Heisler, a resource conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Maryland.

Because so much land is expected to come out of the CRP program in the next year, Heisler said officials anticipate having no problem meeting all requests for the most environmentally sensitive lands. "We'll never catch up with the number of acres rolling out of contracts," Heisler said.

Eligible acreage for the continuous sign-up includes filter strips, riparian buffers, grassed waterways, field windbreaks, shelter belts, living snow fences, salt-tolerant vegetation, shallow water areas for wildlife, or well-head protection area designated by the EPA.

In addition, farmers may be eligible for 20 percent bonuses on rental payments for enrolling land with high environmental benefits, such as riparian buffers.

Traditional CRP sign-ups for erodible land will continue to be offered under the revisions, with the first sign-up expected early next year. But land with less potential for erosion will no longer be eligible.