The prospects for the proposed Conservation Security Act seem generally good. Traditional farm groups and environmental advocates have warmly embraced the concept of paying farmers to utilize environmentally sound practices.
The proposal also got a bit more ammunition this week in the form of a damning report from an environmental coalition. The report in no uncertain terms fingers agriculture as the source of much of what ails the nation's waterways.
According to the three environmental groups, agricultural runoff is the leading threat to 13 of the nation's most polluted bays. Runoff from farms and feedlots, they say, triggers the growth of algae, which in turn contributes to low-oxygen dead zones and blocks the sunlight needed by bay grasses. Those grasses provide habitat for fish and crabs.
JoAnn Burkholder: "Some nutrient input is actually healthy, and I'd like to make that point for you, for rivers and bays. But each year and many decades of intensive agriculture, we've been pouring millions and millions of tons of nutrients year after year into these rivers and bays and there's basically only so much they can take before they begin to shift. And we inadvertently seem to be doing a major experiment; we're shifting these systems more and more out of balance..."
In a report on restoration of the waters, the groups allege that agriculture contributes one-third or more of the pollutants that cause dead zones in many of the nation's dirtiest bays and estuaries.
The groups say they believe most farmers and feedlots are willing to do their part to clean up the polluted waters. But they claim special interests in Congress have blocked conservation-based farm programs that provide the clean-up incentive.
Scott Faber: "Indeed, our report concludes that only farmers can significantly improve the health of America's bays and that many farmers are indeed willing to help if only federal incentives were available."
The groups called on Congress when it rewrites the farm bill this fall to reward farmers for production methods that emphasize conservation.
They urged the backing of legislation already introduced in the House that would provide $6 billion in annual funding to farmers who help reduce runoff and restore wetlands. In addition to cleaning up polluted bays and estuaries, sponsors of the bill say its passage will reduced long-term water treatment and dredging costs, protect rare species, and preserve open space.
The federal budget may drive the conservation measure as much as anything. New numbers indicate the budget surplus is being drawn down by a combination of tax cuts and slowing tax receipts, courtesy of the slowing economy. While the White House believes the tax cuts will eventually fuel economic expansion, the administration in the meantime will be looking for ways to curtail expenditures. Agriculture subsidies are a likely target. The fact the conservation proposal costs less than the hefty production-based Freedom To Farm subsidies currently in place may make it more palatable to a broad spectrum of Congress, not just farm state lawmakers. The sticking point may yet be the traditional farm lobby that has grown used to the larger payments.