The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it would spend an additional $22.5 million this year to help farmers install conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Under secretary for farm production and conservation, Robert Bonnie, said the influx represented a 25% increase in the department’s spending in the Bay region.

Reducing agricultural nutrient pollution has been a challenge throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. Pennsylvania has the most farms in the Bay watershed and has fallen far short of its pollution reduction goals. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Farms, which cover nearly 30% of the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, are its largest source of water-fouling nutrient pollution. Controlling runoff from those lands has proven difficult, but the region is counting on more than 80% of nutrient reductions in coming years to be derived from those lands.

“We know that the decisions farmers make every day — thousands of decisions on thousands of properties all over the Bay watershed — are critically important,” Bonnie told the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative advisory panel, at its meeting in Lancaster, PA. “And that’s our challenge.”

According to the USDA, the money will be prioritized to promote the installation of stream buffers, planting nutrient-absorbing cover crops, construction of manure storage facilities, promoting prescribed grazing, and other conservation practices. Bonnie also stressed the importance of having enough technical staff to work with farmers on the projects.

“Sometimes farmers worry about conservation being done to them and not with them,” he said. “And that means [supporting] the types of partnerships that we’re talking about today. An incentive-based approach is vital.”

The stepped-up funding is only guaranteed in this year’s federal budget. Still, Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania said he and other lawmakers in the region would seek to have the commitment maintained in future years.

According to computer models, Pennsylvania, which has the most farms and farm-related runoff in the Bay watershed, is far behind in meeting its Bay cleanup goals. Casey said the stepped-up support is needed to help meet the goals.

Lancaster County has more farms than any county in the watershed.

“Farmers right here in southcentral Pennsylvania are some of the most important partners that we have,” Casey said. “But again, we’ve got to give them help. Help doesn’t mean words; it means appropriations.”While Pennsylvania has the greatest shortfall, most other states are also off track for meeting the region’s 2025 nutrient reduction goal. Advocates hope the new money will help narrow the gap.

 “We know the 2025 goals are going to be difficult to meet. We want to help each state meet those goals,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. “We recognize that we all need to do more. We are never going to be satisfied. We’re proud of our accomplishments. But we know we need to do more because the stakes could not be higher.”

It was the second major Bay funding announcement in five days. Earlier in the week, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency announced it would be spending $48 million over the next several years on new Bay-related water quality initiatives. That funding was part of the $238 million targeted toward the Bay in the federal infrastructure package passed last year.

“This has been a big week for the Chesapeake Bay and our local waters,” Alison Prost, vice president for environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told the commission.

Karl Blankenship is editor-at-large of the Bay Journal.

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