House May Double Funds for Cleanup

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

The languishing effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay could get a huge boost in federal money -- $80 million a year to reduce pollution -- under provisions of the farm bill moving through Congress, environmentalists said yesterday.

The new money included in a bill that won committee approval in the House on Thursday would more than double the federal spending on pollution-reducing measures at farms across the Chesapeake's watershed. Environmentalists have said for years that a funding increase on this scale was direly needed, but they had found little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill.

This year, however, a group of lawmakers from across the watershed, which stretches from southern Virginia to Upstate New York, pushed for the bay to be singled out for federal funds.

Among vocal backers were Maryland Democrats Steny H. Hoyer, the House majority leader, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Congressional Campaign Committee for the party, now in the majority.

So this year, to the delight of environmentalists, the bill cleared the House Agriculture Committee with provisions for $400 million to help the Chesapeake.

"This is the kind of action that the bay has needed for a long time," said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a coalition of state-level officials from across the watershed. "If the Senate can continue this trajectory, the Chesapeake Bay should be in much better shape in the foreseeable future."

The farm bill, a legislative catchall that covers such disparate categories as crop insurance, school lunches and historic barn preservation, includes about $226 billion in projects. The portion for the bay would come in addition to about $65 million a year in federal aid for farm cleanup projects in the watershed.

Pollution from farms accounts for more than 40 percent of the Chesapeake's two most troublesome pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus. These substances are present in both chemical fertilizer and manure and often wash off farm fields and into bay tributaries during rainstorms. In the bay, they help create huge algae blooms that consume the underwater oxygen needed by fish and crabs.

The current version of the farm bill includes more than $150 million for projects to stop these pollutants, paying farmers to make changes with large environmental benefits but little potential for profit. These might include cover crops, whose roots take up fertilizer left behind after the main harvest, as well as forest buffers -- strips of trees and grasses that filter rainwater washing off of fields.

Another provision in the bill would provide $25 million to help farmers determine which conservation measures would work best for them. In addition, environmental groups said yesterday, the bill would alter national programs in a way that seems likely to funnel more money to farmers in the Chesapeake watershed.

Taken together, environmentalists calculate, the total could be $400 million, or $80 million annually for the five-year life of the bill.

"This'll take a big, big bite out of the problem," Van Hollen said in a telephone interview yesterday. Since March, environmental groups and legislators from watershed states have been pushing for the farm bill to include an increase in funds for the Chesapeake.

Even if the bill passes the full House, and then the Senate, environmentalists say it won't solve all of the bay's problems -- or even just those problems related to farming.

Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said yesterday that the full slate of activities needed to clean up the bay would require about $200 million more a year in federal money alone.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company