Congress doubles funds for bay

At least $690 million pledged over 10 years for pollution cleanup

May 16, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown and Rona Kobell | Matthew Hay Brown and Rona Kobell,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- The Senate agreed yesterday to at least $690 million in cleanup funds for the Chesapeake Bay over the next decade - a windfall that more than doubles the federal commitment to bay environmental programs.

The sum exceeds by $58 million the amount that congressional negotiators agreed to last month for the bay. The funding was included as part of the federal farm bill - the first time that huge legislative package has included money specifically for the bay.

The legislation passed both houses of Congress this week by veto-proof margins, thwarting President Bush's threats to derail it.

"This is the most important vote from the U.S. Congress for the Chesapeake Bay in history," said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I go back 32 years, and I can't think of anything more important."

Ann Swanson, executive director of the multistate Chesapeake Bay Commission, says the money represents the best opportunity in decades to clean up the bay.

The potential for reducing pollution is "positively gigantic," she said, if the money is spent on cost-effective practices in the right geographic areas.

Some of the money will be used to pay local farmers to create buffer zones, to set aside land for conservation and to refrain from using fertilizer when planting wheat, barley or rye in the fall and winter - steps intended to protect the bay watershed from harmful runoff.

The bill includes $438 million over the next 10 years specifically for the bay and $252 million over the next five years as the bay's share of other, non-bay-specific conservation programs. More money is expected in the second five years.

The Senate voted 81-15 to approve the $290 billion farm bill yesterday, a day after the House passed it 318-106.

"This has overwhelming support in the House and Senate - it wasn't close," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat who had pushed for the money. "It's inevitable that this bill will become law."

The farm bill, the five-year package that legislates agricultural policy, investment in biofuels and support for nutrition programs, contains something for almost everyone in this election year: increased subsidies for some crops, more support for cellulosic ethanol, and expanded spending on food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy.

"Every day, my neighbors tell me about the sacrifices they are making to cope with the skyrocketing cost not only of gas, but also food," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "The prices of milk and eggs are significantly higher than they were 30 years ago, and we need to adjust the food stamp minimum accordingly."

The inclusion of money for the bay was backed by a coalition of lawmakers, governors and environmental advocates from the bay watershed states who came together last year to compete for attention with the large agribusiness operations that typically dominate farm bill negotiations.

Maryland's Democratic senators praised the measure. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called the money "a major victory for the farmers and families who rely on the bay." Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said it is going to make "a major difference."

"We've always done well in the farm bill for programs that have been important, particularly to the agricultural community as it relates to the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said. "But having a specific program, where you don't have to compete, it's strictly for the bay, it's a major statement of commitment by the federal government."

Rep. John Sarbanes called the timing "perfect."

"It's coming at a moment when there's a lot of heightened awareness of the need to attend to the bay and to the watershed on the part of everyday citizens that are part of the 16 million people in the watershed," the Baltimore Democrat said. "By demonstrating that the federal government is ready to make a commitment, it's inviting and challenging private citizens to stop forward into a real partnership."

The entire Maryland delegation voted for the bill.

While states such as Maryland and Virginia have pots of money to upgrade sewage treatment plants and control some of the pollution associated with population growth, they have not found comparable funding to address the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from fertilizer used to grow corn, soybeans and other crops.

The pollutants cause algae blooms, which block the light that grasses need to grow and deprive small fish and worms of the oxygen they need to breathe. Agriculture also kicks up a lot of sediment, which fills in wetlands and contributes to poor water quality.

For years, farmers across the 64,000-square-mile watershed have been using different techniques to control the runoff, among them planting grass buffers around streams, using cover crops and placing land that's marginally productive into conservation programs. Scientists know which techniques work, but willing participants are often turned away for lack of funding.

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