Senators from the Bay region have joined their colleagues from the House in sponsoring legislation that would give the Bay region a bigger bite of federal agricultural spending when Congress writes a new Farm Bill this year.

In May, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, introduced the Chesapeake Healthy and Environmentally Sound Stewardship of Energy and Agriculture Act of 2007 which would boost federal funding for agricultural conservation programs in the region by nearly $200 million a year from the roughly $80 million it gets now.

Similar legislation was introduced in the House in March.

“The Chesapeake Bay is not only Maryland’s greatest natural resource, it’s part of who we are as Marylanders—our heritage and our culture,” Mikulski said. “Maryland communities and farmers want to do right by the Bay, but they can’t do it on their own.”

Eight other senators from the region had signed onto the legislation as of mid-May, including Sen. Robert Casey, D-PA, who is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will write its version of the Farm Bill this summer.

“As part of the Chesapeake Bay region, Pennsylvania takes the health of the Bay very seriously,” Casey said. “This bill is the next step to help our farmers to meet their obligation to clean up the Bay.”

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, which is hampered by sediment clouds and excess nutrients that fuel algae blooms.

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.

Lawmakers hope to change that when Congress approves a new Farm Bill this year, which will establish funding levels for agricultural programs for the next five years.

CHESSEA would boost overall funding for conservation and also change the formula the Department of Agriculture uses to distribute conservation funds to prioritize 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.

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

Taken as a whole, the programs would boost conservation funding for the region by about $200 million a year, which is roughly the level Bay advocates say is needed to meet Chesapeake cleanup goals.

Co-sponsors include Sen. Joseph Biden, D-DE; Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD; Sen. Thomas Carper, D-DE; Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-PA; Sen. John Rockefeller IV, D-WV; Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA; Sen. John Warner, R-VA; and Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA.

The House version, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, has 21 co-sponsors.

(To learn about CHESSEA, see Legislators working to ensure region gets its share of Farm Bill funding,” May 2007)