Farm bill may help the bay

Deal would add $380 million to programs for cleanup

April 29, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown and Tom Pelton | Matthew Hay Brown and Tom Pelton,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- A deal reached by congressional negotiators adds $380 million to the federal farm bill for programs to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, lawmakers said yesterday.

The funding, which would to be spent over 10 years, would pay farmers to create buffer zones to reduce the flow of pollutants into the bay, set aside land for conservation and refrain from using fertilizer when planting wheat, barley or rye in the fall and winter.

"This is one of the biggest congressional wins for the Chesapeake in a long time because agriculture plays a major role in defining the water quality," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

The inclusion of the cleanup funds in the $280 billion farm bill was backed by a coalition of lawmakers, governors and environmental advocates from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states in the bay watershed who teamed up last year to compete for attention with the large agribusiness concerns that typically dominate farm bill negotiations.

Lawmakers continued yesterday to hammer out the details of the agreement reached late last week on the farm bill, a five-year package that legislates agricultural policy, investment in biofuels and support for nutrition programs such as food stamps.

If approved in its current form, it would be the first time that the farm bill has included funding dedicated to bay preservation. The package could come to a vote in the House as early as this week.

"As always, it ain't over till it's over," Rep. Chris Van Hollen said yesterday. "Sometimes these things can come undone. But as of right now, I think people are fairly confident it will stay on track."

President Bush says he supports conservation in the farm bill, but the White House criticized the current legislation on the issue of subsidies.

Unclear on a veto

It was unclear whether Bush would veto the bill.

"If we didn't get it, it would be quite a disappointment," said Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced the language last year to set aside $380 million for the bay.

"The idea was to make it clear that the Chesapeake Bay had to be a priority, because there's obviously that very important relationship between nutrient runoff from farms and the health of the bay," Van Hollen said.

He said the government should be partnering with farmers to improve water quality.

"This costs farmers to do these kinds of things," he said of the methods to reduce pollution. "You can't ask them to bear the full costs of the cleanup. You want to make sure that you have provided some support and some incentive to do it."

Bay advocates also were hailing a change that would reduce the federal subsidy for corn-based ethanol while increasing the subsidy for cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from switch grass, wood and other plants.

Corn `bad' for bay

"Corn is a particularly bad crop for the bay, because it requires a lot of extra nitrogen fertilizer to grow, and the spring rains wash it into the nearest stream," Siglin said. "From the bay's perspective, it would be a lot better to have grasses" as a source for ethanol.

The $380 million to pay farmers for reducing pollutants would come on top of the roughly $66 million annually that bay cleanup has been receiving through other federal conservation programs.

Van Hollen said he is working with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, to "tweak" funding formulas for those programs so Maryland can compete for more money there as well.

"Obviously, when you focus on farm acreage [in calculating funding], the huge farms in the Midwest have an advantage," he said. "Where if you focus more on the water quality issues, the Chesapeake Bay region benefits."

Lawmakers were planning to meet today to finalize the $280 billion farm bill.

Under the agreement reached last week, the legislation would slash crop subsidies and payments for ruined crops in favor of increased spending on nutrition programs. The negotiators were working to send a bill to Bush before the current farm bill expires Friday.

Bush had proposed spending more than $56 billion on conservation in his farm bill proposal last year.

But the White House said yesterday that the current agreement does not go far enough in reducing subsidies.

"The proposal before Congress would dramatically increase spending, in part by masking additional spending in budgetary gimmicks and accounting tricks," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "Now is the time to modernize our agricultural policies for the future, but members of Congress have not risen to this challenge."

Bay advocates remain concerned that Bush might veto the package.

"He has not been inclined to support a more expensive farm bill," said Swanson, of the bay commission. "But if he does not sign this, it will be a tragedy for the Chesapeake Bay."

Congressional negotiators were working to overcome White House opposition by attracting bipartisan support to their agreement.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com tom.pelton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter David Nitkin and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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