Projects aim to stop runoff and improve water quality

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 3, 2012 -USDA announced last week a new round of conservation partnership projects, part of the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), in nine states under the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI). Producers say the investments are already paying off.

The $8.4 million committed by the department will fund producer activities to avoid, control and trap sediment and nutrient runoff from agricultural lands and improve water quality. The 23 selected projects are located in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

< Lets Talk Foodp style="margin:0in;margin-bottom:.0001pt">USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Ann Mills described CCPI as an umbrella program, where entities can come together to focus on watershed areas that could benefit from a set of conservation practices. She said the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) works with state and private partners to support community water quality goals.

“What's exciting is basically conservation partners are coming to NRCS saying ‘we've got really great ideas for how to improve water quality for this area,” she said. “Those partners also bring a little skin to the game, and back financial contributions.”

With the 23 new projects, Mills said private partners are contributing about $1.2 million. 

The MRBI, first announced in September 2009, provides financial assistance for voluntary projects in priority watersheds in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. MRBI selections were based on the potential for managing nitrogen and phosphorus while maintaining agricultural productivity and benefiting wildlife.

Through the 2008 Farm Bill provisions, NRCS can make Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) program resources available to owners and operators of agricultural land who are located in an approved CCPI project area.

Ohio soybean and wheat farmer, Ray Seals, is a participant of CCPI as part of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative in an existing project area, the Upper Big Walnut Watershed in Morrow County. Seals uses cover crops, grassed waterways and stream crossings and also signed up for mulch tillage. Now in his fifth year on his current farm, Seals joined the CCPI in 2011. Knowing that his soil lacked precious nutrients to give it life and water retention, he sought information and discovered the local NRCS, which supports farmers with initial seed money to begin conservation practices. 

“The money is a sidebar, it's nice and it covers a big part of the cost, but the idea is the plan,” Seals said, emphasizing the assistance NRCS provides to create rotational plans, target areas and soil samples. “It's a total expertise package with their knowledge and access to research from around the country.”

“We're already seeing results,” he said after the first crop year of the three-year program.  “We've got worms back in the ground again. In one year of having a year round source of food for these worms, they came back.” And, he noted: “it saves money. I'm spending one-third of the fuel that we did the first year.”

Seals, who works primarily with Ohio NRCS District Conservationist Nathan Rice, said that “these people know what they're doing; they have access to all this information and it's like hitting Google. There's somebody that's putting it all together in comprehensive, cohesive package.”

Mills said this model is being explored in other watershed areas, including the Chesapeake Bay.  The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative invested $190 million over three years.  However, Mills recognized the challenges that shrinking federal dollars brings, but that the partnership model allows the agency to target funds and identify smaller watersheds. Earlier this year, NRCS provided nearly $64 million in financial assistance through 2008 Farm Bill conservation programs to support the 95 existing MRBI projects first funded in 2010.

“We know federal dollars, with the budget constraints, are going to continue to get cut,” she said. “We can do better with what we've got by being smarter about where we place these dollars.”

 

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