WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration wants to spend more than $56 billion to conserve farmland over the next decade, prompting an unprecedented push by Chesapeake Bay advocates to carve out a slice of the money for the imperiled estuary.
Lawmakers and environmentalists say that negotiations on this year's wide-ranging farm bill - better known for the subsidies historically provided to corn and sugar growers, among others - offer the best chance yet to protect the threatened waterway from contaminants flushed in from fertilizer and manure.
By banding together, proponents from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and other neighboring states hope to make themselves a force that large agribusinesses, which traditionally dominate federal farm policy, will have to reckon with. They also seek significant improvements to bay water quality before a looming 2010 deadline that could trigger tougher federal regulations.
"We think we have strength in numbers, if we're able to hang together on these issues and say that we need to make sure that the Chesapeake Bay is treated as a priority," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who recently introduced targeted bay legislation designed to be incorporated into the final plan.
Administration officials insist that they are interested in helping the Chesapeake and that the record amount for conservation contained in President Bush's proposal will do so.
But they are hesitant to endorse a plan that gives one region an advantage.
"We tend to take a national view," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in an interview. "All land is in some kind of watershed."
Still, the advocates are forging ahead, proposing set-asides for the Chesapeake that they say will fulfill an overdue federal commitment to bay restoration.
They are unifying to make themselves as relevant as fruit and nut growers, cotton producers and other special interests that are also jockeying for bigger shares of agriculture spending.
"In my mind, there is no bigger opportunity to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, either existing or on the horizon," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
"For bay restoration, the farm bill represents high stakes."
If successful, bay advocates would steer more federal farm money to the Mid-Atlantic than ever before. But they could also help expand federal spending in an area that critics say is already bloated and inefficient.
The current law, signed by Bush in 2002 to the surprise of many fiscal conservatives, "was the biggest and most generous ever for commodity subsidies," said Brian M. Riedl, who studies federal budgetary affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Riedl said the law was a "budget-buster" that rewarded special interests at previously unseen levels.
Big commercial growers "have gotten all they could ever ask for on commodity programs," he said. "If there is any unfinished business left, it is beefing up conservation spending."
Under the law, which expires this year, the federal government is spending roughly $80 million yearly on conservation measures in the Chesapeake's 41 million-acre watershed area. Advocates say an increase to $260 million would be a major step toward meeting water-quality goals established in a regional agreement known as Chesapeake 2000.
The money would be matched by the states, plus a contribution from farmers for a target of $700 million a year in annual spending.
Conservation efforts contained in the farm legislation have been growing in importance for decades, taking up a bigger share of federal resources. What started as an effort to combat soil erosion during the Depression-era's Dust Bowl years has swelled into an alphabet soup of programs that distribute billions yearly to all corners of the country.
The spending trend reflects the political realities needed to approve such measures. With a smaller population living in traditional farm states, urban and suburban support has become more critical - giving Mid-Atlantic representatives a greater opportunity to make their views known.
While crop subsidies appeal to narrow interests, conservation spending has nearly universal support, according to the agriculture secretary.
"Conservationists like it. People who describe themselves as environmentalists like it. Farmers like it. Ranchers like it," Johanns said. "Folks who hunt. Folks who fish. You can kind of go on and on."
Programs include a land reserve plan to pay farmers annually for each acre they plant with grass, trees or other approved cover crops, and money for such things as manure storage and land terracing to prevent erosion. Many of the programs have a significant backlog of applicants.
Much of the spending has helped the Chesapeake, said Arlen Lancaster, head of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees the programs.
"I am very confident that we are making a difference," Lancaster said after praising the administration's latest conservation proposals at a Pennsylvania farm near the banks of Octoraro Creek, which drains into the Susquehanna River and then the bay. "We've made big progress."
But Lancaster also said that the administration won't get involved in regional jockeying to make the Chesapeake more of a priority.
"What we want to advocate for is a national program," he said. "Every acre counts."
When the administration unveiled its agricultural spending plan in January, it included $56.5 billion for conservation programs - an increase of $7.8 billion over 10 years from the current law.
"I think this is a wise use of our money," Bush said during an address last month to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
By comparison, spending on commodity programs is projected to drop by about $4.5 billion over the same period, to about $70 billion.
The decrease is driven mainly by expectations that higher demand for crops used in biofuels, and other factors, will keep prices high for corn and other grains, requiring less assistance to farmers.
The Chesapeake region's lawmakers and environmentalists are concentrating on the farm bill as a 2010 deadline approaches for reducing contaminants entering the bay and improving aquatic vegetation and marine life such as oysters and rockfish.
The goals are contained in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement between federal officials and state leaders.
If not met, strict federal enforcement under the Clean Water Act would be imposed.
Farms in the vast watershed continue to contribute large amounts of contaminants to the bay. About 39 percent of the nitrogen, 63 percent of the sediment and 42 percent of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake comes from agriculture, scientists say.
But those numbers could be reduced greatly, those who study the issue say, through greater use of techniques such as fences to keep livestock out of streams, storage facilities for manure, more precise use of fertilizers and cover crops and buffer forests to reduce erosion.
"Bay-area farmers have sound science. They have available technology. They have broad public support. What they've lacked is adequate funding," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Nowhere else in the country is legislation like this better set up to show real results."
Federal money would complement an influx of state funds. Maryland and Virginia are spending hundreds of millions on sewage plant improvements, and bay advocates backed legislation in Annapolis this year that would have charged fees to developers and paid farmers for buffers and cover crops.
Implementing a lobbying strategy that has been years in the making, bay supporters have loaded themselves with evidence. They've calculated, for example, that while the national average of federal assistance per dollar of farm production is 9 cents, the states in the watershed get just 4 cents per dollar produced.
With the White House and Congress aiming for a balanced federal budget in five years, the increased spending that bay advocates envision is no sure thing.
"This year, everybody is fighting for a bigger piece of a smaller pie," said Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Bay activists remain optimistic - and are gaining allies in the farming community, which has sometimes been at odds with environmentalists.
Farmers "have not always seen eye to eye with a lot of the environmental groups in some of the ways we've gone about things, and that's not the best way to make things work," said Ned Sayre, who was named conservationist of the year by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for erosion control and other techniques he uses on his 300-acre cattle farm in Harford County.
"The bay is too important, too valuable to this region, to the nation, to let politics get in the way of it," he said.
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.