A new state-federal program will pay Virginia farmers to restore and protect thousands of acres of wetlands, stream buffers and other sensitive lands in the Chesapeake watershed.

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore on March 8 signed a $91 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture aimed at improving wildlife habitat and reducing nutrient and sediment runoff into the water.

“The program has been eagerly anticipated by farmers and landowners across Virginia,” Gilmore said. “Today’s agreement is very good news for the commonwealth.”

With the agreement, Virginia will join the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhan cement Program, which provides extra financial incentives to farmers in certain sensitive watersheds — including the Chesapeake — who participate in voluntary conservation programs.

“The Chesapeake Bay is a unique and valuable natural resource,” said U.S.. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. “This joint effort will mean cleaner water, improved habitat for threatened and endangered species, and eventually better yields from the Bay’s fisheries.”

The Virginia program will make annual rental payments to farmers who sign agreements to take sensitive lands out of production for 10–15 years, and it will help pay to plant trees, grasses and other vegetation to serve as stream buffers. The program will cover 25,000 acres in Virginia’s portion of the Bay watershed, and 10,000 acres in other sensitive watersheds that quality for the program.

The $91 million will be spent over 15 years, and will include $68 million from the federal government and $23 million from Virginia. The state will also spend up to $3.75 million to buy 8,000 acres of voluntary permanent conservation easements, 6,000 acres of which would be in the Bay watershed.

In addition, the Chesapeake Bay Foun dation and Ducks Unlimited have made a $1.5 million commitment to serve as an extra incentive to landowners who choose to install selected conservation measures within the Bay watershed.

Altogether, Virginia estimates the program will reduce the amount of nitrogen washing into streams and rivers by nearly 650,000 pounds per year, and reduce phosphorus runoff by more than 98,000 pounds. In addition, it will keep more than 50,000 tons of sediment from eroding into the water.

“We’ve never seen one program commit this level of funding toward protecting our state’s precious waterways, wildlife and habitat,” said state Department of Conservation and Recreation Director David Brickley. “It shows how seriously state, federal and private concerns are taking conservation these days.”

With the Virginia announcement, all three Bay states are now participating in CREP. Baywide, that will make nearly a half-billion dollars available to farmers as incentives to participate in conservation programs over the next 15 years. In total, more than 200,000 acres of land could be protected.