By Trent A. Dougherty, Ohio Environmental Council
Farmers are stewards of the land. Yet, because of rising production costs and the influx of large-scale agriculture, it can be difficult for farmers to put habitat and water quality first. The Conservation section of the 2007 U.S. Farm Bill contains a host of programs and incentive for farmers of all sizes to conserve land and waters, especially those of the Great Lakes. If the waters of the Great Lakes are to be restored, the federal government must make these Farm Bill Conservation Programs a top priority. More farmers apply for the conservation programs than funding allows each year, yet as energy concerns dominate the landscape there is fear that even fewer funds will be available. The need for increased conservation of water and habitat and the desire of farmers to be involved in conservation mandate full funding.
While there are over half a dozen important conservation programs within the Farm Bill, much of the money allocated in the Great Lakes Basin goes to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Results of the CRP program include:
The Program encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, filterstrips, or riparian buffers.
Of particular importance for Lake Erie is how CRP lands filter the nutrient phosphorous from farm field runoff that would otherwise enter the Lake. Phosphorus is added to farmland as an important nutrient for crop growth. However, there can be too much of a good thing, especially when uncontrolled runoff and soil loss finds its ways into the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.
Dissolved phosphorous levels in Lake Erie are rising at devastating levels, leading to oxygen depletion, algae growth, and the return of the dead zone.
Acres under the CRP program must be increased under the new Farm Bill. But with the reemergence of the desire for energy independence and the President’s desire to create more ethanol plants, there is risk that land currently set aside for wildlife habitat and water quality conservation may be put back into production.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has temporarily halted new enrollments in the program, and though it will probably not release CRP land this year, the pressure to do so will only increase. Energy considerations must be additional to, and not replacement for, the existing goals of the Conservation Title programs. We can develop many sources of clean energy, but we have precious few sources of clean water and wildlife habitats.
It is important that our lawmakers hear from those of us who wish to seek greater protection for our Great Lakes. A recent Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition (HOW-GLC) report, “Cultivating Restoration: How Farm Bill Conservation Programs Help Heal Our Great Lakes,” sets out detailed recommendations for the Farm Bill that promote agricultural land conservation and aid the cause of Great Lakes restoration. The HOW-GLC report can be found at http://restorethelakes.org/FINAL_HOW%20Report.Cultivating%20Restoration.pdf.
For more information contact OEC Staff Attorney Trent Trent A. Dougherty at email@example.com.