Federal funding to support agricultural conservation measures in the Bay watershed has fallen sharply since Congress approved a new Farm Bill last year, a development that has alarmed environmentalists, farm groups and state officials.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s support for Bay-specific conservation measures has declined roughly 75 percent, which has “gutted USDA’s commitment to the Chesapeake,” a coalition of conservation groups said in an Oct. 19 letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“We are disappointed that the Obama administration’s implementation of this new legislation has so shortchanged the Chesapeake region,” said the letter signed by 61 members of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, which consists of regional and grassroots conservation groups in the watershed.
They called on the administration to boost agricultural funding in the Bay watershed.
The letter highlights a concern raised by others in recent months — that changes in USDA funding could hinder efforts to meet Bay cleanup goals, which heavily rely on pollution reductions from the agricultural sector.
The previous 2008 Farm Bill established a Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative that had sent an average of $47.6 million annually to help farmers implement practices that helped meet Bay cleanup goals.
In the 2014 Farm Bill, the Bay-specific funding, as well as funding for other regional programs, was replaced with a national Regional Conservation Partnership Program, the funding for which was available on a competitive basis nationwide.
The Chesapeake region was selected as one of the Critical Conservation Areas to be funded under that program, but grants for 2014–15, which were announced in January, totaled $24.3 million, or a bit more than $12 million a year, a reduction of almost 75 percent.
The cut could have significant implications for the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative was, by far, the largest amount of USDA funding ever devoted specifically to address Bay water quality, and it did ramp up the implementation of conservation practices on farms.
But computer modeling for the Chesapeake Bay Program shows that the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay from agriculture watershedwide essentially stayed the same from 2009 through 2014, roughly the same period that the CBWI was implemented.
That was largely because the acres of crop land and numbers of agricultural animals in the watershed increased during the same period. Put another way, the increased funding simply offset increased agricultural activity.
If those agricultural trends continue, and federal conservation funding remains at reduced levels, efforts by states to meet Bay nutrient goals in their watershed implementation plans could be hindered.
“It is hard to align the pressure for earlier implementation with the reductions in federal contributions,” said James Davis-Martin, of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and co-chair of the Bay Program’s Water Quality Goal Implementation Team.
USDA officials did not comment on the cuts.
But officials have said it’s not easy to directly compare funding under the two programs. Unlike the CBWI, which was directly overseen by USDA, the new program is funded through regional organizations, which can promote actions that better target regional goals.
Also, those local organizations are required to provide additional support, such as staffing, to help operate the program. Sometimes, officials say, those groups can better reach farmers who might be reluctant to deal with federal agencies.
As a result, USDA officials have said, the program should, dollar-for-dollar, provide better results.
“This is an entirely new approach to conservation efforts,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in announcing the grants this year. “These partnerships empower communities to set priorities and lead the way on conservation efforts important to their region. They also encourage private sector investment so we can make an impact that’s well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own.”
The USDA has indicated that RCPP funding would be increased somewhat next year, to $235 million nationwide. That compares with $370 million released for 2014–15, or $185 million a year.
“It will take a few years of the RCPP to determine if funding will get back to CBWI levels because of the annual and competitive nature of the RCPP grant process,” said Lindsay Thompson, policy director for the Delaware Maryland Agribusiness Association. “Incentive payments for landowners to install conservation practices is still very important in order to aid states in meeting their WIP goals.”
Concerns about USDA Bay funding earlier this year spurred U.S. Senators Ben Cardin of Maryland and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania to write Vilsack that President Obama’s 2009 Chesapeake Bay Executive Order had directed federal agencies to prioritize funding to help meet Bay goals. The senators specifically highlighted the need for funding in Pennsylvania, where farms are significantly behind the needed pace to meet nutrient goals.
“USDA must live up to the leadership role it’s been given in our region by prioritizing improved financial and technical resources necessary for Susquehanna River Basin and Chesapeake Bay Watershed farmers to meet the goals of the state WIPs,” they wrote.