June 29, 2022

According to an article in the Verginia Mercury newspaper, a surplus of dollars in Virginia’s coffers this year means record funding for state programs that help farmers pay for practices like streamside fencing that decrease the amount of pollution running into the Chesapeake Bay, but nationwide inflation could blunt some of the long-sought money’s impacts.

The flood of funding is “phenomenal,” said James Martin, who oversees soil and water conservation at the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. However, he cautioned, inflationary pressures are driving up estimates of what it will cost to meet the ambitious goals of the “pollution diet” set by the federal government and the seven jurisdictions that lie in the bay watershed.

“If previously we thought $116 million was full funding, with 8 percent inflation it’s probably not full funding,” he said.

With a 2025 deadline fast approaching for cleaning up the bay, the nation’s largest estuary and a key engine of Virginia’s economy, state officials are focusing on reducing pollution from farms. About three-quarters of the reductions Virginia still has to achieve under a federal mandate are expected to come from the agricultural sector.

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Cutting the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that flows off farms doesn’t come cheap. Fences needed to keep cattle out of streams are expensive to build, as are forested buffers that can filter runoff before it flows into waterways. Both can take land out of operation, cutting into farmers’ bottom lines. Cover crops that cut down on erosion require seed.

Still, many farmers are willing to get on board with the pollution reduction practices as long as the state “make[s] it economically viable for them to do it,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council.

Virginia’s main tool to convince farmers is its Agricultural Best Management Practice Cost-Share Program, under which the state kicks in a portion of a practice’s cost — sometimes as much as 100 percent.

“I think history has shown our farmers are willing to do these things if the cost-share money is there,” said Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who serves on the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

But while Virginia officials see cost-share as one of the best tools for reducing agricultural pollution of the bay, the General Assembly never allocated enough funding to meet the program’s full needs.

That changed this year. A historic budget surplus caused by an infusion of federal relief dollars and a better-than-predicted economic recovery led to a windfall for the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund. By law, that fund must get 10 percent of any surplus — which in this case amounted to $313 million.

Much of that pot of money is going to the cost-share program. In the next fiscal year alone, $81 million is earmarked for cost-share in those parts of the state within the bay watershed. An additional $15 million will go to soil and water conservation districts to provide technical assistance to farmers, and an extra $11 million will bolster operations and maintenance needs.

The expenditures mark the first time ever that Virginia will meet all of the state’s agricultural funding needs, as identified by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

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