Chesapeake Bay cleanup advocates welcomed today’s announcement by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie that USDA plans to direct an additional $22.5 million this year to helping farmers in the watershed adopt conservation practices that improve water quality in the Bay and its tributaries. The announcement was made at the meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
The new Chesapeake Bay States’ Partnership Initiative will provide $10 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), $10 million from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACE), and $2.5 million from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to watershed farmers.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will administer the Initiative to ensure funds are awarded for conservation practices in priority local watersheds. NRCS will prioritize support for practices that reduce nitrogen and sediment runoff, improve management of livestock waste, and conserve wetlands. Eligible practices include installing forested buffers on stream banks, rotating fields where livestock graze, and planting cover crops.
Under Secretary Bonnie also announced plans for USDA and EPA to establish a new joint task force to better quantify watershed farmers’ voluntary conservation efforts. The federal Task Force on Crediting Chesapeake Bay Conservation Investments will work with the Bay states and the agriculture community over the next year to identify ways to more fully credit farmers’ conservation efforts.
Agriculture is the largest source of pollution damaging the Bay and the local creeks, rivers, and streams that feed into it. More than 80 percent of the remaining pollution cuts the six watershed states committed to making in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint must come from agriculture. The Blueprint gives them until 2025 to adopt the policies and practices needed to make those cuts.
Farmers across the watershed need additional funding and technical assistance from federal and state sources to get best management practices in the ground. Such investments strengthen the farm economy and deliver both water quality and climate resiliency benefits. Maryland and Virginia already have state conservation cost-share programs for their farmers. The Pennsylvania legislature is currently considering legislation to create its own version, called the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program.
“This is an exciting juncture in our efforts to save the Bay and improve our local waters. This additional $22.5 million to help watershed farmers improve water quality in their local waters and the Chesapeake Bay is encouraging. We thank USDA for this infusion of resources and our congressional leaders for their tireless advocacy to bring more resources to the watershed,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Vice President of Environmental Protection and Restoration Alison Prost.
“We know the needs are vast, particularly in Pennsylvania. We must all do significantly more to get Pennsylvania’s farmers the financial and technical resources they need to get the job done. CBF is eager to work with USDA and Congress, along with state leaders, to close these gaps by better equipping farmers to reduce pollution, improve local water quality, and ensure a heritage of sustainable agriculture for generations to come,” Prost said.
“With this announcement, Under Secretary Bonnie has shown the strong leadership that Bay restoration efforts need. This is a critical beginning, and a strong down payment that must be grown over time with federal and state contributions,” said Maryland State Sen. Sarah Elfreth (District 30), Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “Working closely with the farm community is the only way to clean up Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.”
“We are thrilled at this significant investment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program are crucial programs that help farmers implement conservation practices on their land. Following the $47.6 million awarded to the Chesapeake Bay Program earlier this week from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the total $70.1 million provides a crucial shot in the arm to protect and restore the rivers and streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay,” said Choose Clean Water Coalition Director Kristin Reilly.
“We want to thank USDA for this support and applaud Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) for their leadership in acquiring these resources to support farmers in their efforts to more effectively steward their land. Practices these USDA programs support include planting trees near streams, installing fencing to keep livestock out of waterways, and upgrading manure storage infrastructure. These projects not only improve water quality but also deliver good jobs, stimulate local economies, and improve public health. Along with our more than 270 member organizations, the Choose Clean Water Coalition will continue to fight for investments like these that will help us leave a legacy of clean water to future generations,” Reilly said.
Two Pennsylvania projects that recently got USDA funding are excellent examples of what local farmers can do to benefit their own operations, their communities, and the Bay when the federal government provides the necessary support.
Using their first opportunity in a decade to seek community project funding through the appropriations process, Sens. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) secured $2.18 million for restoration work on the Pequea Creek watershed, located in Lancaster and Chester counties.
Sen. Casey also secured an additional $1.06 million to restore the Halfmoon Creek watershed in Pennsylvania’s Centre and Huntingdon counties. Funding for both projects, which CBF is coordinating, was included in the fiscal year 2022 omnibus spending measure enacted in March.
“The Pequea and Halfmoon watershed restoration plans bring together an impressive array of technical experts and local stakeholders, including county conservation districts, local businesses and conservation groups, landowners, farmers, and residents,” said CBF Pennsylvania Science Policy and Advocacy Director Harry Campbell.
“Thanks to Senators Casey and Cardin, these much-needed investments will support practices that keep soils and nutrients on the land instead of in the water, plant trees along streams, address climate change, and create jobs.”
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