The Bay region, under proposals being made to Congress, would receive millions of dollars to serve as a national pilot for new agricultural programs that could slash nutrient runoff to the Chesapeake and other coastal waters.
The proposals back pilot programs that would pay farmers to reduce fertilizer applications on corn and promote the use of some farmland to grow crops aimed at carbon sequestration to counteract global warming. Both actions could greatly reduce nutrient runoff.
If enacted in the next Farm Bill, those and other proposals would annually steer tens of millions of additional dollars to the Bay watershed to help stem agricultural runoff, which accounts for more than two-fifths of the nutrients reaching the Chesapeake.
The proposals were recently signed off on by senior officials from the Bay states, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. The Commission agreed at its September meeting to take the lead in lobbying Congress for the measures.
It’s the first time the Bay region has come together to seek Chesapeake-specific funding in the Farm Bill. The bill, expected to be finalized next year, will establish federal agricultural policy and spending priorities for the next decade.
The Bay initiatives are driven by computer model estimates showing that huge, additional nutrient reductions will be needed to achieve the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement goal of removing the Bay from the EPA’s impaired waters list by 2010. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation earlier this year estimated that it could cost about $6.5 billion over the next decade to achieve the nutrient reductions.
“Based on our model runs, we cannot achieve our goals without substantial enhancements in agricultural funding,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which has been coordinating policy discussions about securing additional federal support for the Bay.
“If the Farm Bill does not prove successful, and the states cannot ante up the additional resources, then we won’t delist the Bay. I don’t see how we can,” she said. “This is a moment where we are deeply counting on Congress to pull through for the Chesapeake Bay.”
In the future, officials hope to make similar proposals to secure assistance from other major pieces of legislation, such as transportation policy bills.
Computer model estimates made by the Bay Program suggest that the agricultural initiatives being proposed, if applied on a broad scale, could greatly reduce the amount of nutrients entering the Chesapeake, but would cost the federal government tens of millions of dollars a year.
“What’s being proposed is bold,” said Tom Simpson, of the University of raryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and chairman of the Bay Program’s Nutrient Subcommittee.
With other coastal waters around the nation facing the same pollution problems as the Chesapeake, officials argue that it makes sense for the Bay — which has already taken the lead on nutrient reduction issues — to serve as a pilot for programs that might eventually be more widely used.
“We’re basically saying, ‘let’s do these pilots in the Bay basin, because if we can prove that they work here, then you will have an easier time selling them to your farmers in the Mississippi River basin,’” Simpson said. “Our stakeholders have already been willing to do new things and come further than other places, and that makes them more willing to try these things.”
A major pilot program being promoted for the Bay watershed would offer incentives to farmers who apply 15–25 percent less nitrogen to corn crops than is recommended in nutrient management plans.
Corn can absorb large amounts of nutrients under the right conditions, but in most years, those perfect conditions do not materialize. As a result, nutrients end up being overapplied, leaving excess amounts that get washed into local streams.
Simpson said that, on average, farmers in the Bay watershed already use fewer nutrients to grow the same amount of corn per acre as their Midwest counterparts. But he said many researchers believe the amount can be reduced further.
The proposed “yield reserve program” calls for a four-year pilot program in the Bay watershed, beginning with 25,000 acres in the first year but ultimately growing to 1 million acres annually. Participating farm would be paid $30-$40 an acre.
It would also provide insurance to participating farmers if their corn production fell below what others were achieving. Under the proposed program, Simpson predicted insurance money would need to be paid for underproduction only one to three years out of every 10. The total projected cost for the yield reserve program is about $100 million over four years.
Also being proposed — and being advocated by others across the country — is a pilot carbon sequestration program that would encourage the growth of crops such as warm season grasses, which are highly effective in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil for the long-term. Because such crops require little fertilizer, they could sharply reduce runoff.
The idea is to produce carbon sequestration “credits” that would be purchased by power plants and industries which are ultimately expected to need to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also possible that such crops could be used as fuel to produce energy.
The commission’s proposal calls for a $10 million a year demonstration and market development project in the Bay watershed to explore the potential of growing carbon sequestration crops for bioenergy production.
It also calls for a pilot carbon sequestration program on 200,000 acres in the Bay watershed, which would pay farmers $250 per acre for growing certain plants. Half of the cost would be paid by utilities, and half would come from federal incentives. The federal cost would be about $27 million a year.
Computer models suggest that, if widely used on farmland in the watershed, a combined yield reserve program and carbon sequestration program could slash nitrogen runoff between 40-50 million pounds annually.
Right now, about 300 million pounds of nitrogen enters the Bay in an “average” year. Preliminary estimates by the Bay Program indicate that amount will have to be reduced by more than 100 million pounds annually to meet the 2010 cleanup goal. In comparison, nitrogen loads to the Bay have been cut by about 50 million pounds a year since 1987.
But the model estimates suggest that the widespread implementation of the kinds of agricultural programs being proposed, when combined with other efforts such as recent proposals to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, could likely achieve enough reductions to meet new goals.
Other agricultural proposals which the Chesapeake Bay Commission will pursue include:
Support for expanding the Conservation Reserve Program to cover 45 million acres annually, an increase from 36 million acres nationwide. The program pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive lands out of production, and is widely used in the Bay watershed. The commission will also recommend that the program be altered to allow “compatible economic uses” that maintain environmental benefits, but permit such things as the growing of warm season grasses that could be sold for energy production, in order to increase program participation.
oSupport for efforts to increase Environmental Quality Incentive Program funding to between $1 billion and $1.5 billion nationwide per year. The program, which offers support to farmers to improve nutrient and animal waste management, currently gets $350 million a year. The commission will back language that prevents the money from being used to implement activities required by federal law, but would allow it to be used to help meet more restrictive state or local requirements. It is also seeking to have $100 million a year earmarked for use in the Bay watershed.
oSupport for the development of a pilot nutrient trading or credit program. This would target $100 million of EQIP funding to the Chesapeake and Mississippi River watersheds to purchase credits from farmers for implementing nutrient reduction practices beyond a certain level.
oSupport for a five-year cover crop program in the Chesapeake and Mississippi River basins. The proposal calls for promoting fall cover crops, which are effective in absorbing excess nutrients left in the soil after crops are harvested, on 50 million acres of land. The estimated cost is $1 billion annually to the federal government, plus another $20 million annually for education and evaluation, with additional incentives to be provided by the states.
oSupport for increased technical assistance to help farmers implement conservation programs. That support has declined over the years, and agricultural officials and farmers have long stressed the need for people to work one-on-one with farmers in implementing programs.