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Federal bay cleanup efforts lag, group claims

Federally funded efforts to curtail farm pollution of the Chesapeake Bay are falling short, and recent spending cuts by Congress cast doubt on the efforts' ultimate success, an environmental group said Monday.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said farmers planted only a fraction of the stream-side trees last year than they should have to meet goals set for creating forested buffers to reduce polluted runoff from fields, feedlots and pastures.

Maryland and the other five states in the bay watershed have pledged collectively to establish 185,000 acres of new forested buffers on farmland by 2025, the Annapolis-based group said. To meet that goal, 14,200 acres need to be planted annually, it added, but only 2,600 acres were established last year, the lowest number since the late 1990s.

"We're woefully behind," said Beth McGee, a foundation senior scientist. She pointed out that forest stream buffers are considered one of the most effective techniques for soaking up fertilizer and trapping sediment that would wash into streams and foul the bay.

Farmers are not required to plant trees along streams flowing through their property but are offered payments to do so voluntarily. Funding comes mainly from the federal farm bill, but the money mostly dried up when Congress failed to pass an extension of the legislation.

But even before the cutback, McGee contended, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not provide enough technical assistance to help states and farmers establish the buffers.

Richard Sims, Northeast regional conservationist for the agriculture department, acknowledged the shortfall in forest buffers and warned it could get worse. Farmers sign contracts agreeing to maintain streamside trees, typically for five to 10 years, Sims said. But in the next five years, he said, contracts covering 35,000 acres are scheduled to expire. Those need to be renewed or replaced, he said.

Sims said agriculture officials are hopeful that Congress will pass a new farm bill early in the new year, which he said would restore some, but not all, of the funding that had been flowing into bay restoration efforts like the forest buffer plantings. In 2012, for instance, the farm bill furnished $112 million to the bay states for pollution prevention and reduction programs, he said.

With or without all that funding, Sims said agriculture officials are determined to expand forest buffer efforts over the next two years, working with farmers, states and nonprofit groups.

The lag in forest buffers was one of three bay restoration efforts on which the federal government is failing to meet its commitments, the foundation said. It also accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of not doing enough to reduce fallout into the bay of air pollution from power plants, and for not requiring enough of bay states to reduce stormwater runoff from cities and suburbs.

Jon M. Capacasa, EPA's Mid-Atlantic water protection director, said the amount of nitrogen falling into the bay from power plants is coming down as expected, even though a federal regulation targeting those emissions has been tied up for years in litigation. Capacasa also said that despite environmentalists' complaints, agency officials believe the region's cities and suburbs are being required to make significant, measurable reductions in stormwater pollution.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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