The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a $200 million expansion of Pennsylvania’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that will help to reduce runoff pollution from farmland within the Bay watershed.

This expands upon the existing program, announced in April 2000, which was funded at $210 million but restricted to 20 counties in the lower Susquehanna and Potomac river basins.

Now, CREP will be expanded to 23 additional counties in the Susquehanna drainage, and will cover an additional 100,000 acres of farmland. Of the $200 million, the USDA is expected to pay $129 million, with the state paying $71 million.

“With more than 71,000 acres planted to conservation practices, the Pennsylvania CREP is an effective private lands conservation program in the state,” said USDA Secretary Ann Veneman. “Expanding the program to include additional counties will reduce runoff contaminants and provide healthier wildlife and cleaner water.”

According to state estimates, past efforts prevented 1.1 million tons of sediment and more than 1 million pounds of nutrients from reaching the Chesapeake.

In addition to filtering runoff, vegetation planted as part of the program improves water quality and provides shelter, nesting areas and food for various wildlife species, such as grassland birds and small game.

CREP is a voluntary program, targeted to priority watersheds in the nation, that was launched in the Bay watershed in 1997 to reduce agricultural runoff. It pays participants to plant hardwood trees or establish grass filter strips, riparian forest buffers, vegetation and other conservation practices on environmentally sensitive land. In return, participants receive annual rental payments, cost-share assistance and other financial incentives.

CREP combines the USDA’s existing Conservation Reserve Program with state initiatives to provide a more comprehensive effort to meet the environmental objectives of a region, in this case the Chesapeake cleanup effort.

Since its initiation, all three Bay states have launched CREP programs within their portion of the watershed. It was the single largest source of funding for planting stream forest buffers, and was largely responsible for the Bay Program meeting its goal of planting 2,010 miles of forest buffers last year—eight years ahead of schedule.