Farm Bill Cuts Conservation in Chesapeake Bay

  • Farm runoff is a major contributor to water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, and to the decline in blue crabs. Photo: Oblivious Dude via Flickr.

UPDATE: January 31, 2014

The U.S. House passed the food and farm policy this week, and sent it to the Senate. The almost $100 billion-a-year, compromise bill contains a small cut in food stamps and preserves most crop subsidies.

For those concerned about land conservation measures, the final bill is a mixed bag. Environmentalists got one major victory: the bill links conservation compliance with federal crop insurance. That means farmers and ranchers will have to protect wetlands and highly erodible land on their property in order to qualify for crop insurance.

However, the farm bill also cuts $6 billion from land conservation over the next decade, and consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and the Great Lakes Basin Program are among those that have been rolled into larger, nationwide programs(see in-depth look at this below.) Cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program, for one, are expected to lower the number of acres enrolled by 7-million acres.

A spokesman for President Obama says the President will sign this bill if it reaches his desk.


Original story published January 24, 2014

Congress is finally getting close to a vote on the Farm Bill, and it’s expected to dramatically cut spending. But some fear those cuts could be bad for the environment, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes regions. The new Farm Bill would consolidate conservation programs targeted in those areas, and put them in competition for federal funds.

For many people, the Chesapeake Bay is synonymous with beach vacations, eating oysters and blue crabs. But both species have been in sharp decline. One of the biggest culprits is chemical runoff from farms.

The six states whose waterways drain into the Chesapeake, including Pennsylvania, have been trying to turn that around. And five years ago, Congress stepped in to help, by creating the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative—a land conservation program within the federal Farm Bill.

“We rely on the federal Farm Bill and the financial and technical assistance it provides to individual family farmers to get these conservation practices on the ground,” says Harry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Pennsylvania.

It’s his job to help farmers better design fields, to keep soil and fertilizer from eroding, or build fences, to keep cows from standing, or dropping waste into streams.

Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region have received an extra $188 million for conservation projects like this through the Farm Bill, including $60 million for Pennsylvania. 

But that’s about to change under the new Farm Bill.  Pennsylvania Congressman Glenn Thompson is from Centre County. He’s on the House agriculture committee, and chairs the conservation subcommittee.

Thompson says there will be less money for land conservation projects—up to $5 billion less over the next ten years nationwide. And the Chesapeake Bay watershed initiative will cease to exist.

“Quite frankly, it was wonderful that my predecessors were able to achieve that program specific for the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in the past, but it was pretty hard not to justify the fact that there are other watersheds that have the exact same issues, and would benefit from being able to compete from some of those monies,” he says.
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative is being consolidated, along with the Great Lakes Basin, with other regional conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill.

Instead of a set amount of money for each region, they will all be administered as one program, and compete with each other for the dollars.

“I think the investments will still be there, in terms of achieving what we need to achieve. What we’ve gained are some efficiencies,” Thompson says.

Those efficiencies will mean big changes for people in the field—the people who help farmers find money for new cattle fences and stream restoration projects in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes regions.

Alix Murdoch is federal policy director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“It is a new frontier. So there is uncertainty,” Murdoch says.

She says under the new Farm Bill, organizations like hers will look at larger watershed issues and design projects, for things like stream restorations or sediment reduction. They will need to find partners in the private sector to help fund them.

Murdoch says organizations in other parts of the country are already used to this, and have been creating larger watershed projects for years. But it’s new to Pennsylvania, because the state’s had that designated funding.

“What makes it of concern is this is a competitive program. So Pennsylvania will be competing with other parts of the country for these funds, and if we’re not on the ball, we’re simply not going to bring them into the state and get them to farmers interested in implementing these new practices,” she says.

Some Chesapeake Bay experts in Pennsylvania say the new Farm Bill will force them to look at the big picture, in terms of reducing farm pollution into the Bay, and that’s a good thing. But they worry that there just won’t be enough money to put these projects into practice.