The Biden-Harris Administration has an opportunity to invest in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed while supporting farmers and agricultural communities throughout the region. President-Elect Biden, the former Senator from Delaware, knows that as the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay is not only home to an abundance of fish and wildlife, but it also provides jobs, recreation and food for millions of Americans. Its well-being is vital to the well-being of our economy and our communities.
A core component of the effort to clean up the bay must include increasing and targeting conservation assistance to farmers in the watershed, with a focus on those in Pennsylvania. With more than 30,000 individual Pennsylvania farms in the bay’s watershed, the Commonwealth’s agricultural footprint significantly affects the health of the Bay. While our partners in Maryland and Virginia can heavily rely upon upgrades to urban wastewater treatment plants to curb the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Bay to meet our Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) targets, Pennsylvania’s portion of the watershed is largely rural. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the total remaining nitrogen reductions needed in Pennsylvania come from agriculture. This means that in order to stem the flow of runoff from small towns and individual farms, Pennsylvania must rely significantly on the implementation of agricultural conservation practices.
Our farmers can and must play a central role in enhancing the health of Pennsylvania’s local waters and supporting the restoration of Chesapeake Bay. Farmers are leading stewards of the land and have a critical understanding of the best management practices that are at the heart of protecting our waterways while simultaneously improving their bottom line. However, especially as farmers and state governments continue to face challenging economic conditions, federal conservation support is more important than ever. Using the existing set of USDA programs and policies, the incoming administration can immediately take several steps to benefit Pennsylvania farmers and improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay. President-Elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has the skills and experience to lead USDA in supporting farmers and enhancing water quality through implementation of the following priorities.
Increase Technical Assistance – The implementation of conservation practices relies upon the availability of on-the-ground technical support and conservation planning. The next administration should increase conservation technical assistance (CTA) for Pennsylvania to ensure the boots on the ground support that is necessary for the adoption of best management practices. The incoming USDA should also ensure there is appropriate training available for Technical Service Providers to focus on practices and planning activities that protect and enhance water quality in the region.
Measure Conservation Outcomes – USDA’s existing set of conservation programs include practices that contribute significantly to water quality improvements. However, we lack the program level data to quantify the specific benefits that these conservation activities provide. The incoming USDA should put in place a system to measure, evaluate and report on the outcomes associated with conservation programs, aligned with the provisions included in my bipartisan legislation, the Farmer-Driven Conservation Outcomes Act. This would also enable farmers to tell the story of how they are contributing to water quality improvements as well as climate change mitigation.
Ensure Program Allocations Reflect Water Quality Priorities – Programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) can offer support for key practices to benefit water quality, including cover crops, diversified cropping systems, riparian buffers and grazing management. The incoming administration should ensure that the allocation of available funding, as well as any additional funding provided through these programs, reflects the environmental concerns, as directed by statute and regulations. In the case of EQIP, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) should again review the process by which funds are allocated nationally to maximize environmental benefits.
Improve the Conservation Reserve Program to Benefit Water Quality – The 2018 Farm Bill included key improvements to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to benefit water quality. Unfortunately, implementation of these provisions under the Trump Administration has failed to achieve the intended results. The incoming USDA should immediate act to reverse administrative decisions that have stood in the way of CRP achieving its full potential to improve water quality. These modifications include: improving outreach and promotion of the Clean Lakes Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR) Initiative, providing the maximum level of practice incentive payments and ensuring Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) agreements can continue to operate while benefiting from key provisions from the farm bill.
Support the Next Generation of Farmers and Conservationists – Finally, the economic crisis means that our communities continue to face alarming rates of unemployment and economic distress. In order to address this crisis while also increasing the capacity of a workforce achieve conservation objectives, the incoming administration can support policies and programs, including through a revitalized Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), to train new farmers and conservationists with the technical skills to implement and manage best management practices. There should be a prioritization on regions with significant needs, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Pennsylvania’s agricultural communities.
U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) is the senior senator from Pennsylvania and serves on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.