Farm pollution help for Bay on chopping block

While the federal government is busily trying to shovel economic stimulus money out of Washington, it seems there's a countermove that could put a crimp in efforts to reduce farm-related pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

Environmentalists say a Senate subcommittee cut $250 million from a federal farm conservation program that offers farmers technical and financial help to do a better job of keeping poultry and other farm animal manure from washing into nearby streams.

The spending cut was among a batch sought by the Obama administration. If the cut to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) stands, it could reduce payments to Maryland farmers by $2 million, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. The neighboring bay states of Pennsylvania and Virginia, with even more farms, stand to lose more than $3 million each. 

The cuts are potentially significant because until recently, at least, federal and state officials had relied on such financial incentives rather than regulations to get farmers to reduce polluted runoff from their fields and feedlots.  The EQIP program pays up to 75 percent of the cost of some conservation improvements.

Congress last year authorized a major boost in farm conservation spending nationwide, with $188 million earmarked for bay states over the next five years in the 2008 farm bill and tens of millions more available to bay region farmers through national farm conservation programs like EQIP.  Even with the increase, officials had said it would not be enough to pay for all the conservation improvements needed to curb nutrient pollution and sediment runoff from bay region farms. 

Environmentalists fought the Bush administration to keep it from blocking the increase in farm conservation funds, only to find the Obama administration now also seeking to trim them.

"We understand the administration's goal is to cut the deficit, but programs that help drive private investment in public benefits – like cleaner water, cleaner air and improved habitat for wildlife – are a great deal for taxpayers,” Sara Hopper, director of agricultural policy for the Environmental Defense Fund said in a press release.

The Senate panel did refuse to go along with the rest of the $600 million in farm conservation spending cuts that had bene sought by the Obama administration. But a House appropriations panel has made a similar $270 million cut in EQIP funding, and the full House is expected to vote soon on a spending bill including that cut, according to EDF.

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