Congress may soon finalize the 2012 Farm Bill, and that hefty document should concern all of us in Maryland — especially when it comes to clean water.

As we all know, the Chesapeake Bay is the nation's largest and most productive estuary. However, the bay is threatened by pollution from its major tributaries, including fertilizer-laden waters from farmlands. Each summer, nutrient runoff leads to algal growth, resulting in oxygen depletion as the algae decays. The loss of dissolved oxygen causes more than a third of the Chesapeake Bay to become a "dead zone."

Roughly every five years, the U.S. Farm Bill determines how tens of billions of federal tax dollars will be spent to shape American food, agriculture and conservation practices. The last bill, passed in 2008, was called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 and carried a price tag of $288 billion.

The Izaak Walton League of America is seeking to keep America's waters clean, increase conservation and save federal tax dollars in the 2012 Farm Bill by reinstating stewardship agreements with farmers receiving federal crop insurance payments.

Stewardship agreements are not new to American farmers. Under all federal farm subsidy programs — save one — farmers who accept taxpayers' money agree to provide basic stewardship of soil, water and wetlands, a practice known as conservation compliance. The only exception is a large one: federal crop insurance. Last year alone, crop insurance payments exceeded $7.4 billion.

One of the most significant ways we can protect our nation's clean water, land and wildlife habitat is for Congress to close the loophole exempting farm operators who receive federal crop insurance from agreeing to basic stewardship practices. Our organization urges Maryland's congressional delegation to provide strong conservation leadership and work to ensure that farm operators who accept crop insurance payments also agree to implement conservation practices on their lands. In 1996, a conservation compliance loophole was created for crop insurance. It's time to close that loophole.

Closing the loophole is necessary because crop insurance payments are the largest form of federal farm subsidy payments, with an overall participation rate exceeding 80 percent for the major crops.

One of the best aspects of the stewardship agreements is that they will not cost any additional federal dollars nor require additional regulations for America's farm operators. In fact, they can save taxpayers money because federal payments will not be made unless stewardship agreements are in place. Everyone wins in this scenario: America, because our precious water and soils are conserved; taxpayers, because their money is wisely spent; and farmers, because they enact conservation practices that ensure that productive farmland remains in their families for generations to come.

However, time is running out to put stewardship agreements in place. The Farm Bill is awaiting a U.S. Senate floor vote before heading to the U.S. House.

Now is the time for Maryland's congressional leaders to put their political prowess to work, protecting some 260 million acres of America's farmlands covered by crop insurance. The result will be to save our valuable farmlands, wetlands, wildlife habitat and clean water.

Bob Benson is president of the Bethesda Chevy Chase Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America. His email is bobbensn42@aol.com.