USDA To Fund More Conservation Partners
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will have $235 million next year for public and private groups to spend on partnership programs that improve water quality, soil health and other conservation goals, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday.
The money is part of the 2014 Farm Bill’s new Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) that is already leveraging $370 million in federal funds for projects chosen for 2014 and 2015. The RCPP could spend up to $1.2 billion over the life of the farm bill, and Vilsack said he expects private funds to at least match that.
“We are convinced that this resource will be matched dollar for dollar.” he said.
Vilsack made the announcement in Denver at a signing ceremony for the Colorado Pressurized Small Hydropower Partnership Project, a 2015-funded project that focuses on water quantity resource concerns in Colorado. The project, which will receive $1.8 million in NRCS support alongside local partner investments, will facilitate the conversion of flood irrigation systems to more resource-efficient pressurized irrigation systems with integrated hydropower. In some cases, water flowing in irrigation projects has more than enough energy to power center pivot irrigation systems.
Vilsack told reporters Monday that funding for the new RCPP projects could be reduced if federal spending caps (called sequestration) under the 2011 Budget Control Act kick in this fall. Across-the-board federal spending cuts were averted by a budget deal in 2013 that runs out this year. Vilsack said the previous sequestration rate was $7.5% and he expects trims in spending to be larger if no agreement is reached this year.
Vilsack likes the RCPP because it allows NRCS to accomplish more than it could alone and it reflects local and regional interests.
"This initiative allows local partners the opportunity to design and invest in conservation projects specifically tailored for their communities,” Vilsack said in a statement later on Monday. “These public-private partnerships can have an impact that's well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own. These efforts keep our land and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism, and other industries."
One project, “The Tri-State Western Lake Erie Basin Phosphorous Reduction Initiative" brings together more than 40 partnering organizations from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana to reduce the runoff of phosphorous to waterways in the western basin of Lake Erie. The lake has suffered from nutrient pollution for years, including last year's water crisis that left 400,000 residents in the Toledo, Ohio area without water to drink, bathe or cook. This project will target funding to the streams and rivers that have the largest impact on water quality in the lake.
Projects already approved reflect diverse local interests, from restoring habitat to help “preserve customs and traditions of Alaska Native people” to trying to keep the golden-winged warbler in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from becoming an endangered species, according to USDA’s list of programs already approved for backing.
Several farmer-friendly programs are aimed at making water quality projects more attractive to landowners. The Delaware River Watershed Working Lands Conservation and Protection Partnership, for example, is working with American Farmland Trust to “provide streamlined access to some practices and encourage participation by some who prefer not to use government funding.”
In Minnesota, a farmer certification program kicked off in four small watersheds is being expanded statewide. Producers who demonstrate “superior water quality conservation management” can be certified to be in compliance with any new state water quality laws enacted in a 10-year period.
In Iowa, the NRCS is partnering with the City of Cedar Rapids to install best management practices to improve nutrient management in the Cedar River Watershed. And the NRCS is partnering with Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to support demonstration projects in nine watersheds as part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which aims to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer in waterways by 45%.
The deadline for RCPP pre-proposals in July 8, 2015. Details are on the RCPP website.