NRCS earmarks $100 million for projects in Mississippi River Basin

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 7, 2015 - USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will invest $10 million this year, and an additional $90 million over the next four years, in water quality improvement projects on farms and ranches within the Mississippi River Basin.

“We know that when we target our efforts to the places most in need, we see stronger results,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “These projects focus on watersheds in need, where we have opportunities to work with partners and farmers to get conservation work on the ground.”

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Today, 27 new projects were awarded a total of $10 million to reduce nutrient and sediment run-off sourced from agricultural lands and improve the resiliency of working lands in the face of droughts and floods, the agency said. There are currently 44 existing projects within the basin that received funding earlier this year.

The new projects will be implemented in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin, and will include:

-- Lower South Fork Root River Watershed, Minnesota: NRCS will work with the Root River and Fillmore soil and water conservation districts, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, The Nature Conservancy, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, Monsanto and others to achieve a 40 percent reduction in sediment and associated phosphorus by 2020. NRCS plans to invest $39,000 in fiscal 2015 as part of a $1.2 million commitment in the watershed over four years.

-- Headwaters-Big Pine Creek, Indiana: NRCS will work with the Benton and White county soil and water conservation districts, Big Pine Creek Watershed Group, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Technology Information Center, Ceres Solutions LLC, Purdue Cooperative Extension Service, Indiana Soybean Alliance, Pheasants Forever and Indiana Department of Environmental Management to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in this critical watershed to improve the conditions of waterways for recreational use and wildlife. NRCS plans to invest $50,000 in fiscal 2015 as part of a nearly $500,000 commitment over four years.

-- Long Lake, Mississippi: NRCS will work with Delta F.A.R.M., Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to address water quality concerns in priority watersheds identified in the Delta Nutrient Reduction Strategy. NRCS plans to invest $710,000 in fiscal 2015 as a part of a total commitment of $4.3 million over four years.

NRCS will fund the selected projects through its Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), which receives funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other farm bill programs to help farmers adopt conservation practices that enhance wildlife habitat, improve water quality and restore wetlands. Similar, landscape-level water quality initiatives can be found in the following regions: Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay watershed and California Bay Delta.

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This year's funded projects are located in “high-priority watersheds” - that is, watersheds that were identified by NRCS, with input from state agencies, farmers and other partners, as high-impact zones for water quality initiatives. These projects will build on USDA's $18.5 million fiscal 2015 contribution to water conservation programs within the Mississippi Water Basin, the agency said.

According to USDA, MRBI has worked with more than 600 partners and 5,000 private landowners to date, improving environmental outcomes on more than 1 million acres and effectively quadrupling the number of conservation contracts in the basin since 2009. Two stream segments in the St. Francis River watershed in Arkansas have even been removed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of impaired streams as a result of MRBI efforts, USDA said.

The USDA's 2014 Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) found that conservation work in the basin has reduced nitrogen and phosphorus run-off from farms and ranches into the Gulf of Mexico by 18 and 20 percent, respectively. Also according to CEAP, targeting MRBI investments in high-priority areas could reduce sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus losses from working lands by 70, 30 and 40 percent respectively, compared to non-targeted conservation outcomes.

“Putting to work NRCS-recommended conservation practices helps clean and conserve water, makes agricultural operations more resilient, and stimulates rural economies as this work often relies on help from biologists, foresters, pipe makers, dirt movers, welders, engineers and many more different professions to implement,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller said.

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