New federal funding will help local communities strengthen their approach to conservation, said environmental activists and policymakers, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced $370 million in federal Farm Bill funding.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is one of the beneficiary conservation areas for the funds, which were awarded to 115 projects nationwide as part of the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). About $19 million will fund four projects in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes parts of Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the funding in January. According to the USDA, the projects will leverage an estimated $400 million more in partner contributions. Ned Tillman, chair of the Howard County Sustainability Board, said he believed the funds administered through the RCPP would not only empower communities to set priorities when it comes to bay conservation, but also encourage people to try to follow conservation practices on their own property.

“As the local population continues to grow, at the same time, we need to be preserving more and more,” Tillman said. “People need to be managing their property in a way that’s healthy for the environment. Instead of having lots of grass and lawns, put in more shrubs and trees and meadows.”

He also suggested capturing rain so that it can be then put back into the ground. “We can make a big difference,” Tillman said.

Local Partners, Farmers

The RCPP awards funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region that improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat and other related natural resources on private lands. Eligible partners then invest in the proposed initiatives.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), along with other policymakers and local environmental experts, attended an event at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock to announce the funding.

“Maryland farmers understand how valuable a healthy Chesapeake Bay is to our region and our nation,” he said. “In general, projects will improve nutrient management practices, restore wetlands, increase stream-side plant growth, cut down on fertilizer runoff, expand bird nesting areas and restore native grasslands.”

Local policymakers agreed that the RCPP structure will allow for more control of how monies are used and more decision-making at the local level.

One of the projects, for $5.5 million, with the Maryland Department of Agriculture as a lead partner, will use state implementation plans to accelerate targeted, cost-effective conservation in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

Another $5 million, with lead partners The Nature Conservancy and the Delaware Maryland Agribusiness Association, will use a science-based approach to improve water quality through the implementation of advanced nutrient management practices on 95,000 acres and restoring, enhancing and protecting 3,000 acres of natural filters (wetlands and buffers); and expand wildlife habitat by enhancing, restoring and protecting 3,000 acres of high quality wetlands and buffers.

An additional $1.5 million, through lead partner the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, will bring significant financial resources to areas of Pennsylvania and Maryland within the Chesapeake Bay to overcome common barriers to landowner adoption of conservation systems, including limited outreach, lack of technical assistance and funding, and limited coordination among programs and private markets.

Funds of $7 million, through lead partner the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, will reward agricultural producers in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania for implementing higher impact, priority conservation practices in targeted sub-watersheds and counties of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Work Just Beginning

The federal agency has approved 115 proposals in an initial round of funding. The USDA solicited applications for funding of locally designed ventures that improve soil health and water quality while promoting efficient use of water and creating more wildlife habitat. Most projects have around 11 participating groups and agencies, but others have dozens.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said he believes the RCPP funds are only the beginning of what will become a decades-long effort to preserve the health of the bay.

“The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure that many Maryland families not only enjoy, but rely on in a variety of ways,” he said. “I am excited to celebrate the steps toward restoration that these new RCPP funds will allow us to take, but we have a long way to go before our work on this issue is done. I remain committed to working with my colleagues at the federal level to secure resources that will restore the Chesapeake and keep it healthy and beautiful for generations yet unborn.”

Ag Community

As Tillman noted, the funding sparked optimism on the more local level, too. “I think that there are opportunities for the agricultural community through those bay grants that will help them improve streams on their property,” said Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural marketing specialist at Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Of the federal money, 40% went to multi-state and national projects. An additional 35% went to projects in “critical conservation areas,” including the Chesapeake Bay watershed, as well as the Great Lakes region, California Bay Delta, prairie grasslands, the South’s Longleaf Pine Range and the Columbia (Mississippi) and Colorado River basins. State level projects received 25% of the funding.

The USDA received more than 600 grant proposals. The groups that weren’t selected were encouraged to try again for the next round of funding.