"It's forcing us to march forward into an area that was vague and to make it more clear," she said. But, she said, "it is incumbent on us to be sure that only those farmers that are model farmers are engaged in it."

Thomas W. Simpson, who heads a nonprofit group working with farmers to voluntarily improve their conservation practices, said it's not clear even to him just what more farmers would have to do to get out of dealing with new regulations for a decade.

He added that he's concerned the reprieve could complicate or even delay achieving all bay restoration goals by the 2025, the current deadline.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed "agricultural certainty" in principle. But states still must meet federal cleanup goals on time, said Nick DiPasquale, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay office.

"One way or another, they're going to have to achieve their overall reductions," DiPasquale said.

Russell B. Brinsfield, a farm pollution expert with the University of Maryland and a farmer himself, said he wished the program would make more information about farmers' efforts public.

"There's parts of it I don't like that I wish could've been stronger as a scientist," he said. "On the other hand, anything we can do that encourages farmers to go beyond what they are doing I think is a good thing."

The bill's prospects in the House are uncertain. Del. Maggie McIntosh, who heads the Environmental Matters Committee, said she's heard from both supporters and opponents and has some concerns of her own.

"We're just going to have to look very carefully at the bill," the Baltimore Democrat said Tuesday, "and see if there are areas we can clarify and conform — and make it a better bill that everyone can be comfortable with."

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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