Skip Navigation

News Release

Report shows Farm Bill conservation practices reduce runoff of nutrients, sediment in Chesapeake Bay watershed

Molly McDonough

USDA-led conservation practices in the bay watershed are preventing millions of tons of soil erosion annually while reducing harmful runoff, report says

HARRISBURG, PA, December 5, 2013 – A record number of voluntary conservation practices adopted by Chesapeake Bay farmers since 2006 have significantly reduced the amount of nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus leaving cultivated croplands, according to a new report released today.

The report by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that, since 2006, conservation practices applied by cropland farmers in Pennsylvania and other bay-area states in the past seven years are reducing nitrogen leaving fields, by 48.6 million pounds each year, or 26 percent, and reducing phosphorus by 7.1 million pounds, or 46 percent.

“Farmers and partners in Pennsylvania are key players in this effort to improve water quality,” Denise Coleman, State Conservationist said. “Targeted, science-based conservation and collaborative approaches is making impressive gains in protecting and restoring the bay.”

Conservation practices also lowered the average edge-of-field losses of sediment, or eroded soil, by about 15.1 million tons a year, or 60 percent. That’s enough soil to fill 150,000 railcars stretching more than 1,700 miles!

Most of these practices were supported by conservation programs under Title 2 of the Farm Bill. NRCS has provided more than $670 million in financial and technical assistance to farmers during the past five years.

The report, part of the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, or CEAP, highlights a wider acceptance of popular conservation practices like erosion control structures. Most notably, some form of erosion control has been adopted on 97 percent of cropland acres. While this does not mean that all acres are fully treated to address sediment and nutrient losses, it is a positive indication of a willingness by farmers to do their part to help restore the bay watershed.

Farmers use a variety of conservation practices, like no-till and cover crops, to keep nutrients and sediment on fields and out of nearby waterways. Excess amounts of nutrients and sediment can have detrimental impacts on water quality.

Throughout Pennsylvania and other bay-area states, NRCS and its network of conservation partners, such as soil and water conservation districts, state agencies and others, work with farmers and ranchers to install measures on their farms to protect and restore water quality.

Another notable result is the increased use of cover crops by bay watershed farmers. Since 2006, land with cover crops in a cropping system increased from 12 percent of acres to 52 percent. Cover crops are planted to reduce erosion, improve soil health and use nutrients remaining from previous crops.

This report is part of NRCS’s broader effort to quantify the benefit of conservation efforts on private lands in major watersheds, including the Mississippi River and Great Lakes, as well as the Chesapeake Bay. The first CEAP report for the bay was released in 2011 and included data from farmer surveys conducted from 2003 to 2006. Today’s release is the first CEAP cropland report to revisit a particular region, and it includes data from an updated farmer survey in 2011.

By comparing losses of sediment and nutrients from cultivated cropland to losses that would be expected if conservation practices weren’t used, CEAP reports give science-based insight into the approaches with the most benefits.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, or CBWI, was authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill. NRCS has used CBWI to accelerate the adoption of conservation systems in the region. NRCS targeted funding to priority watersheds and practices that would have the biggest impact on watershed health.

CBWI expired in October with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill, reducing the technical and financial assistance available to bay watershed producers.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed touches six states and is home to 17 million people and more than 83,800 farms and ranches. Agriculture contributes about $10 billion annually to the region’s economy. Conservation practices have other environmental benefits, such as sequestering carbon and making farms more resilient to extreme weather events linked to climate change.

The full report, along with a fact sheet, summary and infographic, is available here. Learn more about USDA's Conservation Effects Assessment Project.