Harry Huntley, Senior Agriculture Policy Analyst, Environmental Policy Innovation Center

While many experts agree that Maryland and other states in the Chesapeake region are frequently at the forefront of environmental policymaking, it can be easy for residents to forget just how much is happening here and nowhere else. For instance, driving down the highway you might not even notice that more than half of the cropland out your windows is covered in green throughout the winter, preventing nutrient runoff and, as the distinctive bright blue and yellow signs say, “protecting the Bay.” But Bay states have been far and away the leader in cover crop adoption for decades, due in no small part to Maryland’s Cover Crop Program, which pays farmers to plant soil-stabilizing crops in their fields over the winter. Congress must have seen the success of this program and decided to emulate it, because the version of the Build Back Better Act that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives includes a provision to pay farmers $25 per acre to plant cover crops.

These are both good examples of an approach to conservation that was once viewed as experimental but is now widely accepted: give citizens a set amount of money to implement a practice. Through the concerted efforts of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and advocates led by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, including Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), and many others, Maryland is on the cusp of implementing a new generation of environmental programs that pay directly for outcomes. The 2021 Clean Water Commerce Act (CWCA) will make Maryland the first state in the country to use state funding to pay for environmental results after—not before—they are delivered. And it’s no meager amount, either; this will be a $20 million a year program!

The authority for paying only for results after they are achieved will be broadened beyond the CWCA. The proposed Conservation Finance Act will be introduced in the Maryland General Assembly in January 2022 and includes sections authorizing an additional form of allowable procurement for state agencies that fund conservation and environmental restoration projects. This competitive procurement method is called “pay for success” and allows agencies to pay for projects after they have successfully achieved agreed upon outcomes.

The CWCA pays for modeled reductions in nitrogen pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay that last for at least ten years. It uses the Chesapeake Assessment Scenario Tool as an agreed upon model, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture or Department of Environment will later visit the project to verify the practice is actually in place. This program is specifically focused on long term nitrogen reductions, so projects like buffer strips and bioreactors that can last decades will be prioritized for funding. At least 35% of funds are set aside specifically for agriculture projects, but a minimum of 10% is also reserved for non-agricultural landscape restoration projects, which could help revitalize urban neighborhoods while reducing pollution in the Bay through projects like stormwater management and green infrastructure.

In addition to the nitrogen reduction cost efficiency, projects will be prioritized for funding based on co-benefits related to greenhouse gas offsetting, climate risk resiliency, phosphorus and sediment load reductions, and alleviating environmental harms borne by communities historically disadvantaged by them. This focus on equity is further exemplified by the requirement that at least 20 percent of funds are used on projects established in communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harms and risks.

Annual funding of $20 million is a drop in the bucket of the total amount spent yearly to improve Bay health, but it’s an incredibly strong start for a program with lots of potential. In addition, EPIC has secured an almost $2.7 million grant from USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnerships Program Alternative Funding Arrangements to fund even more projects. In talking to supporters, the CWCA’s goal sounds so obvious that it’s easy to forget it’s never been done before. But if this succeeds in Maryland by getting strong buy-in from communities leading to lots of applications and very cost efficient nitrogen reductions, the program could expand horizontally and vertically. Maryland could begin directly purchasing reductions of phosphorus, sediment and other environmental outcomes, and other states (or even the federal government) could adopt this pay for outcomes model.

Right now the conservation community can help the CWCA be successful by smoothing over suspicions that can arise with these kinds of programs (No, this isn’t nutrient trading. No, farmers won’t need an easement.), connecting landowners and municipalities with partners who can implement ecological restoration solutions, and sharing your excitement over how innovative this program truly is.

In-text Images:

  1. Maryland Cover Crops Sign: Image via Maryland Department of Agriculture
  2. Susquehanna River, Asylum Township, Bradford County, as seen from Marie Antoinette Overlook along US Route 6: Image via Nicholas_T on Flickr
  3. RCPP Graphic: Image via USDA

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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