Legislation seeking to boost Chesapeake cleanup efforts by making sure the region’s farmers get a “fair share” of conservation funds in the next Farm Bill was introduced in the House in late March.

If all of its provisions were enacted, the bill could boost the amount of conservation funding the region’s farmers receive from the U.S. Department of Agriculture by nearly $200 million a year beyond the roughly $80 million they get now.

“The focus is to provide farmers with the tools that they need and the support that they need to help the Chesapeake Bay,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, the sponsor of the bill.

Many Bay advocates say such a boost in federal support is essential if the region is to meet nutrient and sediment reduction goals aimed at restoring the Chesapeake’s water quality, where excess nutrients fuel algae blooms and sediment clouds the water.

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, though, also tends to be less expensive than controlling other sources. As a result, the tributary strategies that states have written to guide nutrient control efforts rely on farmers to make two thirds of the reductions.

But current conservation programs, which help farmers implement nutrient control practices ranging from planting buffer strips to building manure storage facilities, have huge funding shortfalls: Some programs help only one out of four farmers who apply.

The Farm Bill, which will direct how billions of dollars are spent nationally over the next five years, could change that.

“This is one of the biggest opportunities that the Bay has had in a long time,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures, who worked extensively on the legislation.

The bill is dubbed the Chesapeake Healthy and Environmentally Sound Stewardship of Energy and Agriculture Act of 2007, or CHESSEA (HR 1766). It largely was introduced to stake out the region’s position when serious work to draft the new Farm Bill begins, likely this summer. The more support CHESSEA has from regional lawmakers, the more leverage they will have in shaping the final legislation.

In mid-April, it had 20 co-sponsors in the House. Similar legislation was expected in the Senate.

“My hope is that we can get members from the Bay delegation to bargain collectively on behalf of the Bay. This is a very important vehicle for doing that,” Van Hollen said. “When it comes right down to it, our strength is our numbers. If we can keep that unity, I think we will be able to increase our federal support for the Bay.”

Congress generally approves a Farm Bill every five years that establishes funding levels for a host of agricultural programs, from food stamps to bioenergy to rural development.

Only about a quarter of the $95 billion a year spent on various Farm Bill programs goes to farmers, and those are mostly in two accounts: commodity payments, which subsidize growing certain crops, and conservation payments, which help fund actions that reduce pollution from farm lands, protect habitats or take environmentally sensitive areas out of production.

Right now, the federal government spends a bit less than $4 billion a year on voluntary agricultural conservation programs. That’s a dramatic increase from a decade ago, yet it still falls far short of meeting farmer demand in the region.

That shortfall stems not only from a lack of money, but also because funding is often distributed using formulas which shortchanges the region, critics charge.

In a report issued last year, for instance, the Congressional Governmental Accountability Office said the formula used for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, one of the USDA’s largest conservation initiatives, does not prioritize money to areas with the greatest environmental needs.

In particular, the GAO found, dry rangelands benefitted from the formula, while problems such at nitrogen leaching into water were not significant factors in funding allocations to states.

The Bay legislation would boost overall funding for conservation and also change the formula in EQIP and other programs to prioritize funding to regions with water quality problems caused by nutrient and sediment runoff.

It would also create a new funding program that would make grants to states that are dealing with regional water quality problems to help them better address those problems on a large scale.

It would also create a pilot program in the region to provide technical assistance for farmers. Many environmental and agricultural officials cite lack of on-the-ground support for farmers as a problem that rivals lack of money for programs.

The bill also would support pilot projects aimed at promoting energy from biomass, such as switchgrass, which could produce fuel and help protect water quality.

CHESSEA is not the only bill that has been presented, though. Several others have been introduced, or are in the works. All would increase conservation funding, although some take a regional approach while others are more national in scope. The Chesapeake bill takes the unique twist of emphasizing programs that emphasize water quality, while others put more focus on other issues, such as habitat.

A Farm Bill proposal put forward by the Bush administration would also boost conservation funding by $7.8 billion over the next 10 years and create a new program aimed at improving water quality in targeted regions, such as the Bay. It would more than double the funds for renewable energy and biomass research.

The tough part for all the measures will be finding a way to pay for them. Although support for increasing conservation funding is broad, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, said at a hearing in April that funding would be “difficult” and that it would be hard to find money for dramatic spending increases.

Congress adopted new “pay as you go” rules this year aimed at reducing deficit spending. The rules require that new or expanding programs be funded by finding offsets in other parts of the budget.

Van Hollen agreed that “the major challenge is the competition for resources. And that is why the unity of purpose within the [Bay] delegation will be important.”

Such involvement by the Bay region is unprecedented. Although lawmakers made a push to boost support for the region in the 2002 Farm Bill, that effort was at the last minute, when legislation was nearly final.

“This is the first time that the Bay region has ever played at this level on the federal Farm Bill, and that is a big accomplishment,” said Roy Hoagland, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The Bay is a national treasure, and Bay farmers should be getting their fair share.”

Hoagland said governors from the Bay states, who signed an agreement last fall pledging to seek a boost in the next Farm Bay, need to step up their support for the legislation.

“There needs to be a greater expenditure of political capital on this legislation,” he said. “The governors need to step out and clearly advance this legislation and share that position with all of their Congressional delegations as well as the Bush administration.”

CHESSEA Highlights

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

EQIP is the main source of cost-share money that supports a wide range of stewardship programs aimed at reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. Nationwide, annual funding would increase from $1.3 billion to $2 billion annually and the USDA secretary would be directed to give funding priority to multistate watersheds with nutrient or sediment problems.

Regional Water Quality Enhancement Program

The bill would create a new program within EQIP that would make grants to states taking regional approaches to address water quality issues. The program, which would get $200 million a year, would support states that are promoting comprehensive, large-scale programs that provide cost-effective solutions to regional problems.

Conservation Innovation Grants

Funding would increase from $20 million to $100 million annually for the program, which promotes the development of new conservation practices that could have widespread application in the future.

Conservation Reserve Program

The legislation would continue the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays producers to retire up to 39.2 million acres of marginal or environmentally sensitive cropland nationwide. But the bill would require new lands enrolled in CRP to meet higher environmental standards than previous enrollments. It also reauthorizes the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers extra for taking additional conservation actions on land removed from production, such as planting streamside buffers.

Conservation Security Program

The bill would lift the cap on the amount of land that could be enrolled in the Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers based on their level of environmental performance. If the program could not be fully funded, it would give priority to farmers in watersheds where waterbodies are impaired by nutrient pollution.

Technical Assistance Pilot Program

The bill would provide $10 million a year for a pilot program in the Bay watershed to provide farmers with assistance in comprehensive conservation planning and in implementing those plans on their land.

Wetland Reserve Program

The bill would expand the Wetland Reserve Program, which rewards farmers who restore lost or degraded wetlands, from 2.275 million acres nationally to 3.5 million acres. It would target WRP resources to establish 5,000 additional acres in the Bay watershed next year, and 10,000 acres annually for the following two years to help achieve a Bay Program goal of restoring 25,000 acres of wetlands by 2010.

Agricultural Management Assistance

The Agricultural Management Assistance program provides conservation and risk management assistance to producers in certain states. The bill would add Virginia, the only Bay watershed state not presently included, to the program.

Biorefinery & Biofuel Project Grants

The bill would provide $100 million in grants and loans to farmer-owned cooperatives and businesses developing fuels and energy on farms, ranches and forests. It would also provide support for projects in the Bay watershed that promote the commercial production of fuels from biomass and would reduce nutrient pollution, such as no-till soybean biodiesel production, cellulosic ethanol production or manure-to-energy production.