Unlike Maryland and Virginia, Pennsylvania has no dedicated funding to help farmers pay for conservation practices on their farms to prevent sediment and nutrient pollution.

A Pennsylvania state senator wants to change that.

Sen. Gene Yaw has introduced a bill in the state legislature to fund what would be called the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program. The money would go to county conservation districts based on crop-acreage and livestock herd sizes near impaired streams. Though the program would cover the entire state, counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed would be targeted.

Conservation districts would have the latitude to meet with farmers and landowners and select projects that would have the most immediate impact on local water quality. Cover crops, streamside vegetated buffers and other conservation measures would be used.

The bill is supported by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Yaw, who first introduced the bill in the last legislative session, cited both Pennsylvania’s lagging commitment to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution flowing into Bay tributaries and the high number of impaired waterways in the state.

“Agriculture is looked to for significant reductions to meet pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay and other major watersheds in the state,” Yaw said. “Nevertheless, almost one-third of our commonwealth’s streams do not meet standards for drinking, fishing or recreation, and agriculture remains one of the largest sources of impairment.”

Yaw is vice-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a bi-partisan body of state legislators from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virgina who work on water quality issues in the Bay region.

“Everyone wants agriculture to succeed,” added Shannon Gority, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania executive director, “and it is long past time that it gets the resources and technical assistance to finish the job.”

The bill does not specify any funding source but allows it to come from a variety of places, including state tax dollars, federal funds and private investment.

The State Conservation Commission, under the joint authority of the state departments of agriculture and environmental protection, would administer the program.

By Ed Crable