(WASHINGTON, DC)—The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) today filed comments on the draft rule to update the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) required by the 2018 Farm Bill. CREP is farmers’ main source of funding and technical assistance to install forested stream buffers, one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce agricultural runoff and improve water quality.
Led by Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, Congress included changes in the 2018 Farm Bill designed to improve and re-invigorate this critical program. CBF’s comments pointed out multiple instances where the proposed rule omitted provisions that Congress put in the law to encourage farmers to enroll land in CREP and urged the administration to “reconcile this disconnect.”
“To do anything less would undermine Congressional intent and rob farmers and the public of badly needed environmental benefits by failing to ensure these important legislative changes are given life in existing CREP Agreements,” Beth McGee, Director of Science and Agricultural Policy, said.
Agriculture is the largest source of pollution in the Bay and reducing nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment runoff from farms in the 64,000 square-mile watershed is essential to restoring its health. The landmark 2010 cleanup plan known as the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint set specific targets for stemming the flow of these pollutants from the watershed’s six states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia.
The states are relying heavily on farmers to hit these targets and planting forested buffers is one of the key practices farmers can adopt. These rows of native trees and shrubs planted along waterways capture and filter out nitrogen and phosphorus and sediment from farmland before it can foul the creeks, streams, and rivers that feed into Bay. Streamside forests sequester carbon and provide habitat for wildlife, including pollinators. They also provide cover and food sources for local wildlife.
CREP is a part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the country’s largest private-land conservation program. CREP targets high-priority conservation concerns identified by a state, and federal funds are supplemented with non-federal funds to address them. Each of the six Bay states has a CREP. In exchange for removing land from production and restoring wetlands, stream buffers, and other plantings, farmers are paid an annual rental rate along with other federal and state incentives.CREP has historically driven implementation of forested buffers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed but CREP enrollment in the region has plummeted in recent years.
To boost enrollment, the 2018 Farm Bill contained several provisions to ensure farmers are adequately compensated for installing and maintaining forested buffers. One important change calls for CREP to cover up to 100 percent of the cost of maintaining buffers after they’ve been created. In the past, CREP hasn’t reimbursed farmers sufficiently for maintenance over time.
USDA included this policy change in the draft regulation but didn’t make clear how USDA and the states it works with should modify existing CREP agreements to take advantage of this and other changes. CBF called for USDA give states standardized language for amending CREP agreements, and to do so expeditiously without requiring the entire contract to be renegotiated.
Any key improvement requires USDA to pay farmers both incentive payments and cost-share payments as they complete parts of a buffer project rather than when the whole project is finished. It can several years to fully install a forested stream buffer project. In the meantime, farmers must spend their own money to cover expenses such as erecting fences to keep livestock out of streams, building stream crossings, and giving them other sources of drinking water.
Unfortunately, the proposed rule only restates USDA’s current practice of making farmers wait for their incentive payment until they complete an entire buffer project. CBF urged USDA to revise the draft rule to explicitly state that farmers may receive some their incentive money as they finish major components of a installing a stream buffer.
The draft rule also would include a farmer’s incentive payments—which are meant to expand CREP enrollment—with their cost-share payments when USDA calculates whether a farmer is being reimbursed for more that 100 percent of a project’s cost. CBF strongly disagrees with this proposal, which would effectively diminish the incentive payments. Instead the department should clearly state that only cost-share payments count against the 100 percent reimbursement cap.
Because Bay region producers were among to the first embrace CREP after its creation in the 1996 Farm Bill, contracts covering thousands of acres are expiring. CREP enrollment of forested buffers in Pennsylvania fell by nearly 5,000 acres just in the last three years, plummeting from 22,649 acres in 2017 to 17,684 acres last year, according to USDA. Pennsylvania already lags significantly behind Maryland and Virginia in implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Maintaining existing forested stream buffers and creating new ones are crucial to the Commonwealth’s cleanup plan.
To help encourage re-enrollment of expiring acres, CBF encouraged USDA to name the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a CLEAR (Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers) 30 pilot program. This new initiative would allow farmers with expiring contracts to enter into a 30-year agreement with USDA, with additional flexibility in how the land was used.
The Chesapeake Bay states are relying heavily on agriculture to achieve the nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment reduction goals called for in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and USDA is a key partner. CREP was historically one of the most successful conservation programs in the region, creating thousands of acres of forests and wetlands and providing a model of cooperation among federal, state, and non-government organizations, and private landowners. But, enrollment in CREP has dropped substantially in recent years.
“CBF had hoped that provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill based on legislation by Sen. Casey would improve and re-invigorate this program so vital to restoring the Bay ecosystem,” McGee said. “We urge USDA to revise the rule to include these changes and develop a streamlined process for incorporating them into existing CREP agreements so the public and private landowners can continue to reap the environmental benefits of this critical conservation program.”