The Chesapeake Bay is the nation's largest and most diverse estuary. It is a significant migration and wintering habitat that has been under stress and in decline for decades. Despite some areas of progress to protect the ecosystem, improving water quality in the Bay remains a critical element in bringing about restoration.
Agriculture has been an important part of the Chesapeake's landscape, comprising almost a quarter of the watershed, and it can play a significant role in the Bay cleanup.
The strong conservation title in the 2008 Farm Bill included the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program, a $438 million initiative to help reduce nutrients and sediment which can flow from farm and forestland into the Chesapeake Bay.
Intended to improve water quality and quantity; restore, enhance and preserve wildlife habitat; and increase economic opportunity for rural communities and producers, this program and other conservation efforts included in the Farm Bill have only recently been implemented and we have yet to see their full impact.
It is important that we allow farmers and ranchers, who have always been the best advocates for resource conservation, to take full advantage of these efforts in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed before adding increased regulations.
In May 2009 however, President Obama issued an Executive Order calling for a greater role in the Bay cleanup and instructed EPA to coordinate efforts among agencies to work with states to reduce pollutants flowing into the Bay.
Last December, the Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research Subcommittee held a hearing on the Administration's actions and other legislative efforts being considered in the watershed restoration efforts. It became clear during that hearing that the strategies being developed to mandate more stringent clean up goals would lead to increased regulation for farmers. More had to be done to protect Bay farmers. It was at this time that I joined with my colleague and Ranking Member, Mr. Goodlatte, to try to address some of these issues.
For my colleagues outside of the Bay region, you may not know EPA is setting pollution targets for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment through the Chesapeake Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). To meet these limits, states including Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland are developing detailed plans, to be finalized on December 31 of this year, for reducing pollution, measuring progress every two years. EPA has proposed imposing penalties for missed targets.
Chesapeake Bay agricultural producers already face some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the United States. With new regulations and the threat of penalties looming overhead, there is much uncertainty about what the new requirements will mean for a producer's operations, confusion as to what they must do in order to comply, and lack of understanding about the resources available to assist with the high cost of implementing practices to meet those requirements.
Congressman Goodlatte and I introduced H.R. 5509 to the certainty Bay farmers are seeking. It builds upon the successful existing USDA-NRCS structure to educate producers about what is required of them in order to meet water quality goals as well as assistance to implement these conservation practices. The bill allows for NRCS to utilize the existing third party partnership structure to make certain conservation practices are implemented and verified.
It is critical producers are assured that their efforts are satisfying their regulatory obligations. Providing this assurance to our farmers and ranchers is what this bill is all about. Agricultural practices can be some of the most cost-effective at improving water quality in the region and the agriculture community and USDA stand ready to improve water quality and wildlife habitat by ensuring that Chesapeake Bay conservation programs are implemented as efficiently as possible, while minimizing burdens on producers.
I urge my colleagues to vote in favor of this legislation.