A task force will convene in each Bay state beginning in July to identify needed changes to state and federal programs to reverse sharp declines in streamside forest plantings seen in recent years.

Streamside forest buffers can be highly effective at reducing runoff and also improve stream health and aquatic habitats. The new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement calls for planting 900 miles a year, and state cleanup plans call for planting even more to meet Bay cleanup goals.

But riparian forest plantings have been falling steadily in recent years. In 2013, a little more than 200 miles were planted — the lowest level since the late 1990s.

In response, a forest buffer “leadership summit” took place June 19 in Washington, DC, drawing senior federal and state agency officials, nonprofit representatives and others to discuss potential solutions, which could include greater incentives to landowners, better technical assistance and even changes to national programs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which funds most forest buffer plantings in the watershed.

“We’re identifying creative approaches using our existing programs, so that USDA’s partnerships with Chesapeake leaders can enhance our mutual goal of preventing soil erosion, improving water quality and restoring wildlife habitat in this region,” said Michael Scuse, USDA undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, who attended the forum.

The USDA announced it was also providing an additional $5 million to Bay states to provide incentives beyond those normally offered in the CREP program.

Commonly cited impediments to buffer implementation include high commodity prices that have led farmers to keep land in crops rather than plant buffers; the sometimes substantial maintenance cost; cumbersome and sometimes confusing program administration; and too few technical experts available to work with landowners.

To complicate the picture, 15-year contracts with some of the first farmers who signed up for the CREP program are beginning to expire, and there are indications many may not re-enroll.

“Our intent with this summit was to re-energize leadership and put us on a path to try and figure out how to overcome the current sluggishness in accomplishments, and we accomplished that,” said Al Todd, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, which convened the forum. “But the reality is, the hard work is just getting started.”

State task forces will start meeting in July to discuss impediments and opportunities to accelerate buffer plantings, as well as potential federal program changes. Based on the reports from the state task forces, another forum of senior state and federal officials will recommend actions early next year and an implementation plan will be developed.

Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA Bay Program Office and a forum participant, said he was happy to see increased emphasis on forest buffers but that he would like to see the process accelerated.

“We don’t have the luxury of a full year to wait to get these recommendations back,” he said, noting that making changes to programs would take even more time. States are already far behind buffer planting goals in Bay cleanup plans, and every year the goal is missed, more buffers need to be planted in future years to achieve the needed pollution reductions, he said.