Key USDA watershed programs that fund agricultural waste management, water quality, and flood prevention projects would get $918 million through the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package awaiting a final House vote.

The Senate-passed legislation would spread the watershed funding across three programs that serve different functions but are all oversubscribed, Department of Agriculture officials told Agri-Pulse. House leaders have promised that the bill will get a vote in the House by Sept.  27.

The bulk of the funding — $500 million — would be devoted to the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program administered through USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service; a USDA spokesperson tells Agri-Pulse the current WFPO backlog is $719 million for 112 projects in 26 states.

The program works with local sponsors to bolster watershed protection and improvement projects that deal with flood prevention, water supply management, wildlife protection, and agricultural water management.

Dan Sebert, executive director of the National Watershed Coalition, said funding has increased over the last few years, but the infrastructure money would be an “additional shot in the arm.” The program received annual appropriations of $150 million in fiscal year 2019 and $175 million in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

The type of projects that get funding vary across the country.

Western states use the funds for projects “to make the irrigation systems that are in place more efficient and effective in terms of loss to evaporation and more efficient transfer of water to where it is needed,” Sebert told Agri-Pulse.

States in the central United States generally use the money for upstream flood control projects like building small dams, he said. Some eastern states such as Virginia and West Virginia have several dams, too.

The small dams "catch floodwater and catch the rain where it falls and then release it slowly over time so that the main channel of that watershed is not overwhelmed for days and days,” Sebert said.

The projects require local project sponsors. In many cases, local conservation districts fill that role and partner with USDA.

“America’s conservation districts are often leaders in their communities on watershed-scale projects, which can serve as a first line of defense in times of extreme weather events,” Michael Crowder, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, told Agri-Pulse

Projects intended for addressing extreme weather events include the construction of small dams to prevent localized flooding, developing irrigation projects to minimize drought, and protecting land from soil erosion.

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According to USDA, the agency is currently spending $150 million for 51 projects across 48 states. Some 2,100 projects have been “active or completed” across every state in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Basin, USDA noted on its website. Out of the 2,100, about 1,271 are dam-related projects.

The Emergency Watershed Protection Program is expected to receive $300 million from the infrastructure bill. This program — currently facing a $24 million backlog for 130 Damage Survey Reports across 12 states — helps local communities recover from natural disasters. 

Michael Crowder

Michael Crowder, NACD

Another $118 million in the infrastructure bill would go toward the Watershed Rehabilitation Program, which provides assistance to renovate dams nearing the end of their roughly 50-year lifespan. The program faces a backlog of more than $500 million and a to-do list of 164 dams across 30 states. 

“It renovates these dams, brings them up to current criteria based on hazard class, and continues a stream of benefits that the dam provides on into the future beyond the original design life,” Sebert said.

The program has helped with the construction of 11,845 dams across the U.S. since the late 1940s, according to USDA, and has received annual appropriations of $10 million for fiscal years 2019-2021. 

“The rehabilitation funding supports planning, design and construction for high-hazard dams in 38 states that have reached their design life and are eligible,” a USDA spokesperson said. “Funding is being prioritized for those projects that have authorized plans and are able to complete construction.” 

Both WRP and WFPO have received a combined $50 million a year in farm bill funding, according to NACD.

As weather and rainfall patterns have shifted to new parts of the country in recent years, Sebert said he’s raising awareness of watershed funding opportunities in those areas that may not have known about it.

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