Green energy or greener water in the Chesapeake?

Farm Bill conservation programs are more important than ever as farmers face increasing pressure to produce more and more corn to feed America’s growing appetite for ethanol.

Today, the Chesapeake Bay Commission – a multistate commission led by the state governments of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania – issued a new report on how rapid expansion of up to 300,000 new acres of corn production in the Chesapeake watershed could add another 5 million pounds of nitrogen pollution to the waters of the Bay. (Already in 2007, 160,000 acres of corn were planted in the watershed.) Corn is fertilized with an average of 150 lbs of nitrogen per acre. Much of this runs off into nearby water bodies because corn absorbs only 40 – 60 percent of that amount.

However, the Commission found that if cover crops were planted on these new and existing row crop acres those cover crops would reduce nitrogen flowing into the Bay by an estimated 17 million pounds. That’s a lot of nitrogen kept out of the Bay just by planting grass and other covers on winter fields!

Conservation programs like EQIP – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – help farmers pay the costs of installing cover crops. However, two of three farmers applying for EQIP funding in the Chesapeake region and nationally are turned away because the programs lack enough funds. The Senate should expand funding for these and other conservation programs by at least $6.5 billion over 5 years to help farmers help the environment.

The report notes that cellulosic and other biofuels have even more promise for the environment of the Chesapeake.

Cellulosic biofuels and some technologies that convert animal waste to fuel have great potential to improve water quality while providing a climate-friendly fuel source for farmers and local citizens. Many Chesapeake counties are some of the top poultry producers in America. Converting chicken waste into fuel could kill two birds with one stone – it reduces smelly waste that farmers cannot currently find enough uses for and can provide new revenue for farms. Another fuel – cow manure – is providing ‘cow power’ in Vermont.

Innovative renewable energy programs are already set up in the Farm Bill to fund the most environmentally beneficial renewable energy technologies. The Senate should fund Section 9003 and Section 9006 programs to help catalyze new energy development in the Chesapeake and nationwide.