In February 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014—better known as the Farm Bill—into law. Like its predecessors, this new Farm Bill funds a wide array of federal commodity, forestry, social, trade and conservation programs. Altogether, the Farm Bill authorizes nearly $1 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years, with roughly $57 billion authorized for conservation and preservation programs. But how will the law affect conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed?
The 2008 Farm Bill established the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), which dedicated $188 million to conservation practices in the Bay region. The 2014 Farm Bill eliminates the regional programs established under previous Farm Bills, including the CBWI and the Great Lakes Basin program, and consolidates 23 national conservation programs into 13. For the Bay, the most notable of these 13 programs is an innovative new initiative called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The RCPP allows qualified organizations to request funds on behalf of farmers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which oversees most of the conservation programs under the Farm Bill. These organizations then work with farmers to leverage those funds toward the implementation of conservation practices, from structures that store animal manure to fences that exclude livestock from streams. This approach not only leverages the federal cost-share funds for farmers, but it allows them to work with a wider range of non-federal partners and experts. This increases the number of “boots on the ground” engaged in conservation work, fostering new partnerships between farmers and organizations that want to help.
But how much money is available under the RCPP? The RCPP will receive up to $100 million per year, plus an additional seven percent of the funds and acres available under “covered programs.” Covered programs include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP). However, these funds are for the entire RCPP.
The NRCS will award the bulk of this money through a competitive application process at the national and state levels. The remaining 35 percent of the funds will be awarded in a similar competitive process within “critical conservation areas.” The Secretary of Agriculture can name only eight of these areas. Based on the law’s criteria, the Bay watershed will be a strong candidate, but the eight areas are yet to be determined by the USDA.
The NRCS is currently developing policies and guidelines to carry out the conservation programs under the new Farm Bill, so stakeholders should keep an eye out for announcements, workshops and other events that will explain the new programs and processes in more detail. The RCPP is a major innovation for conservation policy, but it will require increased collaboration between farmers, watershed organizations and agricultural groups to earn funds through competition.
Chesapeake Bay Program partners have improved how states track on-farm conservation, helping farmers get credit where it is due and ensuring states know what has been done to meet their pollution reduction goals.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” each state in the watershed must report their annual progress in promoting agricultural conservation. To streamline this process, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has integrated state and federal data about what conservation practices have been put in place, where. Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia used this new dataset to report their conservation practices in 2012, improving their ability to track their progress toward improving water quality in rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
While agricultural runoff is one of the watershed’s leading sources of nutrient and sediment pollution, on-farm conservation can lower the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, sand and silt washing off of farmland. Conservation tillage, cover crops and nutrient management planning can also reduce a farm’s operating costs and improve a farm’s production.
Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
Indeed, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on the impact of cropland conservation in the region showed that conservation measures—a number of them put in place voluntarily and made possible through the Farm Bill—have improved and protected water quality and soil health. Published as part of the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), the report, which uses data collected between 2003 and 2006 and in 2011, showed a five, six and eight percent drop in phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment runoff into the Bay. While Chesapeake Bay Program partners work closely with the USDA, this particular report is not part of the Bay Program's TMDL-related tracking efforts.
“The good work of Chesapeake Bay landowners has generated substantial progress in a short period of time, but more needs to be done,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a media release. “It is critical that Congress act now to pass a Farm Bill that provides the full array of programs and incentives to build on these efforts.”
Learn more about the reporting of conservation practices in the watershed or read about the impacts of conservation practices on cropland in the region.
In rural West Virginia, a fisherman casts his bright green line into a mountain stream. The stream is clear, the fish are biting and it takes just minutes to make a catch.
Dustin Wichterman, Potomac Headwaters Project Coordinator with Trout Unlimited, dips his net into the water and reveals a 10-inch brook trout. Its olive green body is flecked with red and gold, and its mere presence here is a welcome sign of health for the Pendleton County waterway.
Native to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, the eastern brook trout is a sensitive species that needs cold, clean water to survive. But as regional water quality has declined, so, too, have brook trout populations, leading to lost revenue and diminished fishing opportunities for headwater states.
Brook trout play a critical role in the watershed: they are an important part of the region’s natural heritage, a driver of economic growth and an indicator of environmental health. For these reasons, brook trout restoration was a listed outcome in the federal Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Bay Watershed. And for the past two years, brook trout conservation has been a top goal for the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Through the Bay Program’s Habitat Goal Implementation Team, whose members work to protect and restore wetlands, woods and other habitats across the watershed, brook trout have benefited from stream restoration, fish passage renewal and tree plantings.
As odd as it might seem, the health of a fish depends not just on the health of the creek, stream or river that it calls home; it is also tied to the health of the surrounding land. And poor land management, increasing development and expanding urbanization have been cited as leading factors in brook trout decline.
“This fish is a living symbol of how actions on land affect the health of our local waterways,” said team coordinator Jennifer Greiner.
The removal of streamside trees, for instance, is a common consequence of agricultural or residential development, as seedlings are trampled by grazing cattle or trees are felled for suburban growth. But a missing forest buffer means bad news for brook trout when stream banks erode, excess sediment ruins spawning beds and an absence of shade pushes water temperatures into a range that brook trout cannot withstand.
When, on the other hand, trees and shrubs are allowed to grow along waterways, their runoff-trapping roots keep the water clean and their shade-producing leaves keep the water cold.
So Greiner and her fellow team members have worked to bring brook trout into the land-use discussion, pushing the latest brook trout distribution data out to doers and decision-makers in the watershed. Because when land managers know where brook trout are, they are more likely to take the fish into account in land-use decisions.
Land trusts in headwater states have also found that brook trout can push private landowners to conserve, and Goal Implementation Team partners—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture Partnership among them—are using the iconic fish to promote on-the-ground restoration of riparian forest buffers.
Whether a farmer installs a fence that keeps livestock out of local rivers or a landowner decides to plant a series of streamside trees, education and engagement are critical to conservation.
“By becoming educated and engaged, landowners are able to protect the streams on their land for future generations,” Greiner said. “By protecting and restoring stream habitat, the brook trout, along with other species, are also protected for future generations to enjoy.”
Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might soon have an easier time putting pollution credits on the market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $2.5 million to five Bay organizations to improve the infrastructure behind water quality trading markets, which allow buyers to purchase "pollution credits" for reductions or cuts in pollution that landowners have made on their properties.
From better determining demand for credit to improving outreach to hundreds of eligible farmers, the planned improvements aim to benefit both the land and those who work it. A farmer who uses conservation practices to reduce his runoff of nutrients or sediment, for instance, can produce on-farm energy savings and water quality credits while improving the environmental health of his land.
Watershed recipients of Conservation Innovation Grants program funding include the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Borough of Chambersburg, Pa.
The Conservation Innovation Grants program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This year, an additional $23.5 million has been awarded to more than 50 recipients across the nation for innovative and conservation-minded agricultural practices, from improving soil health to increasing on-farm pollinator habitat.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will receive nearly $850,000 through a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help Chesapeake Bay watershed farmers convert manure to energy.
The grant will be used to help farmers in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia convert excess manure to energy to generate income. The project will also improve the Bay’s health by reducing land application of manure. Efforts will be concentrated in four of the region’s “phosphorus hot spots” – areas with high concentrations of phosphorus in the soil.
The funding was provided through the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants, a program that invests millions in innovative conservation technologies that address natural resources issues.
"The grants will help to spur creativity and problem solving to benefit conservation-minded farmers and ranchers," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information about the recipients of the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants.
Biologists with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) are mapping phragmites along the York River as part of a strategy to control the invasive marsh plant.
The agency will use the phragmites location data to develop a web-based mapping tool. Landowners along the Mattaponi, Pamunkey and York rivers can use the map to see if phragmites is growing on their property. The map should be available on DCR’s invasive species page by winter.
“DCR is developing an improved web-based phragmites mapping application that will allow landowners to assess phragmites invasions on their own land in order to make plans for its control,” said DCR Project Manager Rick Myers.
Phragmites is a tall, perennial grass that grows in marshes. The non-native form of phragmites dominates other plants, forming monocultures that do not provide good habitat for wildlife. Although Virginia has treated thousands of acres with approved herbicides, phragmites is spreading fast because too few landowners are controlling it.
For more information, visit DCR's website.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has released a study showing that effective use of conservation practices on farmland throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is reducing nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay and its rivers.
The study, “Assessment of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” quantifies the environmental gains of using conservation practices and identifies opportunities for farmers to reduce even more pollution.
Agricultural conservation practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage and forest buffers help reduce and absorb excess nutrients and sediment before they can run off farmland or soak into groundwater.
According to the study, agricultural conservation practices have reduced edge-of-field sediment losses by 55 percent, surface nitrogen runoff by 42 percent, nitrogen in sub-surface flow by 31 percent and phosphorus by 40 percent.
“This study confirms that farmers are reducing sediment and nutrient losses from their fields,” said Dave White, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Our voluntary, incentives-based conservation approach is delivering significant and proven results.”
The study shows that using additional conservation practices on farmland prone to runoff and leaching could reduce even more nutrient and sediment pollution. Targeting conservation practices in these high-need areas can reduce per-acre nutrient and sediment losses by more than twice that of treating acres with low or moderate conservation needs.
Scientists and officials will use the study results to better focus on priority conservation needs and achieve greater pollution reduction results throughout the Bay watershed.
For more information about the study, visit the USDA's website.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Maryland and Bay Bank, the Chesapeake Bay’s conservation marketplace, are working together to help agricultural operators and forest landowners implement conservation practices that will make them eligible to receive private funding to protect and enhance important habitats, forestland and clean water.
The partnership provides financial assistance for conservation practices that improve habitat conditions for critical species such as brook trout, bog turtles, Delmarva fox squirrels and Atlantic white cedar. Practices that benefit other habitats and water quality, including wetlands and forest buffers, are also eligible.
Bay Bank is a collaborative effort to increase the pace and scope of conservation across the Chesapeake region. Bay Bank integrates existing programs and policies and uses innovative, market-based solutions to support “ecosystem services” that people depend on. As participants implement their conservation practices, groups such as wastewater treatment plants and private foundations may purchase credits from their practices to meet their permits or organizational goals.
NRCS will provide assistance through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Bay Bank will provide program participants with tools and support to help them engage in ecosystem markets.
To learn more about the program, contact NRCS at your local USDA service center or your local soil conservation district. Additional information can be found online at thebaybank.org. Applications are due May 1.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released $23 million for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, a program of the 2008 Farm Bill that provides the region’s farmers with assistance to implement vital agricultural conservation practices to help clean up the Bay.
The funding will support nutrient management, cover crops, crop residue management, vegetative buffers and other agricultural conservation practices that help reduce pollution flowing into the streams, creeks and rivers that feed the Bay.
Eligible private farmland owners will receive technical and financial assistance to address wetland, wildlife habitat, soil, water and related concerns. The funding will also provide land owners with assistance to plan, design, implement and evaluate habitat conservation and restoration.
“The Chesapeake Bay Watershed initiative is an important source of technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers who want to go the extra mile to improve and protect the Bay,” said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.
Farmland covers almost one-quarter of the Chesapeake watershed and is the largest single source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay, contributing an estimated 42 percent of nitrogen, 46 percent of phosphorus and 72 percent of sediment annually.
The $23 million is the first part of a total of $188 million that the region will receive through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative over the next four years. This is one of the largest single federal investments in the Bay clean-up effort and an unprecedented targeting of Farm Bill resources to a specific watershed. Congress has authorized future funding levels of $43 million in 2010, $72 million in 2011 and $50 million in 2012.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will administer the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. Many Chesapeake Bay Program partners, including the six Bay states and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, provided key input and information that supported the initiative’s authorization in the 2008 Farm Bill.
On any given afternoon, thousands of cars and trucks speed along Route 301 on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore, rolling past forests, rivers and soybean fields on their way north to Delaware or south to the Bay Bridge.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Staff with Adkins Arboretum hope motorists will soon travel on Route 301 for another reason: to see the road itself.
Since early 2002, the arboretum has led the Eastern Shoreway Alliance, a partnership of local organizations and individuals interested in conserving the rural character of this well-traveled road. The group's mission is to protect the stretch of Route 301 between Queenstown, Maryland, and the Maryland/Delaware state line from the development and urbanization threatening many of the Eastern Shore's most scenic areas.
“We want to preserve a sense of place, so you know where you are in the world,” said Ellie Altman, executive director of Adkins Arboretum and co-chair of the Eastern Shoreway Alliance. Much of that “sense of place” has already been lost around the Chesapeake Bay region, as chain restaurants and retail stores make once-unique towns look like any other place in the United States.
Take a drive north on the Eastern Shoreway — the name the Alliance has chosen for Route 301 — into Delaware, and the threat becomes a reality. New homes, stores, hotels and restaurants sit atop land where corn and soybeans grew just a few years ago. Bulldozers and “land for sale” signs along the road indicate that more development is on its way.
(Image courtesy AARoads)
This type of development is not unique to Delaware. Across the Bay watershed — and the country — new construction is concentrated along existing major roads. Although roads are necessary to modern life, they are often gateways to development and the first places where gas stations and strip malls pop up.
Back on the Maryland portion of Route 301, the scene is much closer to the traditional image of rural Delmarva. Volunteers with the arboretum have been working hard to protect this landscape by removing invasive plants and restoring meadows along the road. Dozens of signs mark these areas, which soak up excess polluted runoff and provide habitat for beneficial birds, bugs and butterflies.
With the addition of these meadows, the Eastern Shoreway now acts as a “linear arboretum” where travelers can see some of the Eastern Shore's native plants and flowers outside of Adkins' 400-acre facility in Ridgely, Maryland, according to Altman.
(Image courtesy Eastern Shoreway Alliance)
Through its website, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance markets the road as a travel destination for tourists from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And next year, one of the group's biggest goals will be achieved when the Eastern Shoreway is printed in the Maryland State Highway Administration's Scenic Byways Guide. It will be one of the state's few high-speed roads designated as a "scenic byway."
“Normally you think of scenic byways as backroads, not highways,” said Altman. “But highways can — and should — be beautiful, too.”
From the beginning, the State Highway Administration has been a willing participant in this project. The Eastern Shoreway Alliance is working with the agency to reduce mowing along the highway and put up signs at the crossings of the Chester and Sassafras rivers, two Bay tributaries. The group also wants to add literature on the road's significance to the highway's welcome center.
The effort isn't perfect. Billboards litter a few points along the road, advertising politicians, available land and car insurance companies. Although encroaching development can't be stopped entirely, the Eastern Shoreway Alliance hopes that future structures can be built in a way that does not harm the road's natural scenery.
Most importantly, the group has managed to garner support and build a sense of urgency among the area's residents to protect the land along this “beautiful highway.”
“People think it will be here forever,” said Altman of the road and its unspoiled scenery. “We want to interpret, protect and restore the road's environment and show travelers that you can have development that fits in with nature.”