WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration wants to spend more than $56 billion to conserve farmland over the next decade, prompting an unprecedented push by Chesapeake Bay advocates to carve out a slice of the money for the imperiled estuary.
Lawmakers and environmentalists say that negotiations on this year's wide-ranging farm bill - better known for the subsidies historically provided to corn and sugar growers, among others - offer the best chance yet to protect the threatened waterway from contaminants flushed in from fertilizer and manure.
By banding together, proponents from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and other neighboring states hope to make themselves a force that large agribusinesses, which traditionally dominate federal farm policy, will have to reckon with. They also seek significant improvements to bay water quality before a looming 2010 deadline that could trigger tougher federal regulations.
"We think we have strength in numbers, if we're able to hang together on these issues and say that we need to make sure that the Chesapeake Bay is treated as a priority," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who recently introduced targeted bay legislation designed to be incorporated into the final plan.
Administration officials insist that they are interested in helping the Chesapeake and that the record amount for conservation contained in President Bush's proposal will do so.
But they are hesitant to endorse a plan that gives one region an advantage.
"We tend to take a national view," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in an interview. "All land is in some kind of watershed."
Still, the advocates are forging ahead, proposing set-asides for the Chesapeake that they say will fulfill an overdue federal commitment to bay restoration.
They are unifying to make themselves as relevant as fruit and nut growers, cotton producers and other special interests that are also jockeying for bigger shares of agriculture spending.
"In my mind, there is no bigger opportunity to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, either existing or on the horizon," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
"For bay restoration, the farm bill represents high stakes."
If successful, bay advocates would steer more federal farm money to the Mid-Atlantic than ever before. But they could also help expand federal spending in an area that critics say is already bloated and inefficient.
The current law, signed by Bush in 2002 to the surprise of many fiscal conservatives, "was the biggest and most generous ever for commodity subsidies," said Brian M. Riedl, who studies federal budgetary affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Riedl said the law was a "budget-buster" that rewarded special interests at previously unseen levels.
Big commercial growers "have gotten all they could ever ask for on commodity programs," he said. "If there is any unfinished business left, it is beefing up conservation spending."
Under the law, which expires this year, the federal government is spending roughly $80 million yearly on conservation measures in the Chesapeake's 41 million-acre watershed area. Advocates say an increase to $260 million would be a major step toward meeting water-quality goals established in a regional agreement known as Chesapeake 2000.
The money would be matched by the states, plus a contribution from farmers for a target of $700 million a year in annual spending.
Conservation efforts contained in the farm legislation have been growing in importance for decades, taking up a bigger share of federal resources. What started as an effort to combat soil erosion during the Depression-era's Dust Bowl years has swelled into an alphabet soup of programs that distribute billions yearly to all corners of the country.
The spending trend reflects the political realities needed to approve such measures. With a smaller population living in traditional farm states, urban and suburban support has become more critical - giving Mid-Atlantic representatives a greater opportunity to make their views known.
While crop subsidies appeal to narrow interests, conservation spending has nearly universal support, according to the agriculture secretary.
"Conservationists like it. People who describe themselves as environmentalists like it. Farmers like it. Ranchers like it," Johanns said. "Folks who hunt. Folks who fish. You can kind of go on and on."
Programs include a land reserve plan to pay farmers annually for each acre they plant with grass, trees or other approved cover crops, and money for such things as manure storage and land terracing to prevent erosion. Many of the programs have a significant backlog of applicants.
Much of the spending has helped the Chesapeake, said Arlen Lancaster, head of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees the programs.