The Senate is moving toward action on a Farm Bill that would designate $165 million specifically for conservation programs in the Bay watershed over the next five years, increasing prospects for final legislation that boosts cleanup efforts.
Both the Senate version, which was introduced in October, and the House bill approved in July, will make more money available for a host of conservation programs that pay farmers to plant buffers, take environmentally sensitive land out of production, create wetlands, install runoff control practices or take other actions that protect the environment.
The bills differ somewhat on where they put their emphasis.
The House version puts more money into traditional programs that fund conservation practices, while the Senate version would sharply ramp up funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, dramatically expanding an initiative that rewards farmers who have taken conservation action in the past and encourages them to do more in the future.
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 also tends to be less expensive than controlling other sources.
Bay cleanup supporters had targeted the Farm Bill-which directs how billions of dollars of agricultural money will be spent over the next five years-as a critical way to secure additional federal funds to boost cleanup efforts.
They were cheered by the House bill, which created a new "Chesapeake Bay Program for Nutrient Reduction and Sediment Control" to help clean up the Bay, and called for providing the initiative with $150 million over five years. It also included $25 million for a pilot program to promote comprehensive conservation planning in the Bay watershed.
In addition, the watershed would get a share of a new $60-million-a-year Regional Water Enhancement Program aimed at improving water quality in priority areas.
The House bill also boosts spending for other nationwide conservation programs, which could bring tens of millions of additional funds to the region annually. Altogether, the watershed would get about $500 million over five years in new money under the House plan.
The Senate Bill sets aside less funds specifically for the Bay-it limits Bay-specific provisions to $165 million in a single new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Conservation Program. It also does not contain the sharp increases for other programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program-the U.S. Department of Agriculture's largest single conservation program-which are in the House measure.
Instead, the Senate version emphasizes the Conservation Stewardship Program, which makes annual payments to farmers who take various levels of conservation actions on their farms.
Once the Senate acts, a conference committee will need to work out differences between the two versions of the bill, which must then be approved by the Senate and House. Once it's passed, it will go to President Bush, who has expressed concern about overall funding levels and has threatened to veto it. Many observers, though, are skeptical that the president will carry through on the threat with a national election only a year off.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's D.C. legislative staff estimates that the final bill will include at least $200 million more in conservation funding for Bay area farmers than under current levels of funding, and possibly as much as $500 million. Right now, federal farm conservation programs in the watershed get about $66 million a year.
Although it's called the "Farm Bill," about two thirds, or $190 billion of the five-year, $286 billion program goes to food stamps and other nutrition programs. Another $42 billion goes to farm subsidies and other farm aid; $29 billion to rural development, research and energy programs; and $25 billion to conservation programs.