The U.S. Senate approved its version of a Farm Bill in December that would set aside $165 million for Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts over the next five years and increase other conservation funding for farmers.
The Senate bill is substantially different from a version that cleared the House last summer, setting the stage for a conference committee that will try to reconcile the two versions early this year.
"The fact that we have a Farm Bill going to conference is great news, because this country and the Chesapeake Bay needs a Farm Bill and we need it now, and we need one with enhanced conservation provisions, and this one has that," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.
Swanson said the boost for the Bay reflected unprecedented involvement by the region's lawmakers on farm issues. Members from the House and Senate proposed versions of the farm legislation that would address priority concerns for the Chesapeake.
"We've never seen this kind of unison in the Chesapeake Bay delegation in the Congress," she said.
Still, the House and Senate versions are substantially different in terms of the Bay.
The Senate directs $165 million to the Bay watershed to address water quality issues over five years. The House provides more than $200 million in funds directly targeted to the Bay over five years.
But when the region's expected share of other conservation programs is included, the value of the House bill grows to about $500 million in funding over five years, according to an analysis by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Senate figures are more variable, depending how the myriad farm programs are implemented, but the total value to the Bay would be about $210 million over five years.
Both the House and Senate figures are on top of the roughly $66 million a year in conservation funding steered toward Bay-related activities under the current Farm Bill.
The conference committee is expected to begin meeting in January, but work on the compromise legislation is not expected to be completed until at least February, according to Doug Siglin, the CBF's federal affairs director.
But he expected the final version to greatly increase conservation funding.
"We look forward to working with Senate and House negotiators to ensure that the final bill promotes water quality improvements in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to the greatest possible degree, and to working closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the region's farmers to meet the conservation goals that we all share," he said.
Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, and the region's leaders have pushed hard for more money in the next Farm Bill to pay farmers to install conservation practices such as planting streamside buffers or fall cover crops that reduce runoff.
At the Dec. 5 Executive Council meeting, members signed a letter to Congress calling for legislation with "the strongest possible conservation funding levels."
The letter-signed by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chesapeake Bay Commission Chair James Hubbard-said the region's 87,000 farms deserved support because they were hard-pressed to meet both Bay cleanup goals and remain competitive.
"They need assistance to implement more advanced conservation measures if agriculture is to survive in the watershed and continue to contribute to the region's economy, environment and way of life," the letter stated.
It also noted that all states have increased their own funding in recent years, and more is on the way.
This summer, Pennsylvania approved the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program which provides $10 million a year in tax credits to farmers who install certain runoff control practices.
In November, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill that will provide $50 million a year in additional funding for Bay cleanup efforts. It does not specify exactly how the money will be spent, although it's anticipated some of it will address agricultural runoff.
In December, Virginia Governor Kaine proposed $20 million in additional funding for farm conservation programs in the Virginia budget.
Even with the added state and Farm Bill money, the region would still get only halfway to the $250 million in additional funding needed annually to meet Bay cleanup goals for agriculture, Swanson said.
"Regardless of how you do the math, you are coming up short, and you're not just a little short, you are significantly short," she said.
"It is cause for celebration because we have never had this kind of support for agricultural conservation in our region," she added. "By the same token, it is a wake-up call to the states and to the policy makers. The good news is that you have half of what you need. The challenge is that you must target those dollars both toward cost-effective practices, and geographically to where they can have the most impact for the buck, in ways that we have never done before."
Congress generally approves a Farm Bill every five years that establishes the funding levels for a host of agricultural programs, from food stamps to bioenergy to rural development.
The Senate version, approved on a 79-14 vote in December, would spend $286 billion over five years. Only about a quarter of that funding goes to farmers, and in mostly in two accounts: commodity payments, which subsidize growing certain crops, and conservation payments, which help fund actions that reduce pollution or protect habitats.
A key issue that must be resolved concerns subsidies for growing certain crops. The Senate bill would limit payments to "nonfarmers" whose income averages more than $750,000, while the House version would limit commodity payments to all farmers earning more than $1 million.
A Bush administration proposal goes much further, suggesting a reduction of payments to individuals who make more than an average of $200,000 yearly. The current cap is $2.5 million.
Acting Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner issued a statement after the vote calling the legislation "fundamentally flawed."