WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2015 – More than 100 conservation projects aimed at protecting water quality, restoring critical wildlife habitat and addressing other environmental challenges will get federal matching funds under a groundbreaking program authorized by the new farm bill.

The 115 projects, which include one aimed at preventing another of the Lake Erie toxic algae blooms that plagued Toledo, Ohio, last summer, will share $370 million in federal money, to be matched with $400 million worth of contributions from outside groups, universities and state and local governments.

The projects, which are spread across every state, also target efforts aimed at animals such as the sage grouse that are slated for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“We're giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in a new era in conservation that ultimately benefits us all,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. Vilsack announced the project awards near Phoenix, where one of the projects is designed to help restore habitat for fish and wildlife along the Verde River, a tributary of the Colorado.

This round of projects combined money authorized by Congress for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, but still wasn’t nearly enough to meet the demand. Just 20 of the projects would have consumed the full $370 million had USDA awarded the sponsors the full amount of funding they had requested. The department made a strategic decision to instead fund a relatively large number of projects with a broad geographic spread.

Funding 20 projects “would send a signal that we’re only interested in big projects,” and discourage smaller entities and leave out low-income areas, said Jason Weller, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Two projects in Louisiana and Oklahoma were awarded just $100,000 each.

USDA initially received proposals for 600 projects and culled those down to 230 before making the final selections. 

Many of the projects are designed to demonstrate possible solutions to environmental problems rather than to eliminate them. An Iowa project that will get $3.5 million, for example, is designed to encourage farming practices that will reduce runoff into the Mississippi River that contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.The projects are supposed to monitor and evaluate their impact although the expertise will vary.

The Lake Erie project, which was the largest approved, will get $17.5 million to reduce phosphorus runoff in the region by, among other things, upgrading tile drains so that the water flow can be cut off. That will keep water in the subsoil in the summer months, said Weller.

The Arizona project, which was awarded $2.8 million, involves a partnership between the Nature Conservancy, Friends of Verde River Greenway, Verde Natural Resource Conservation District, Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Tamarisk Coalition. According to USDA, the project will protect 6,000 acres of riparian habitat and improve irrigation on 1,000 farmland acres.

A $9 million project in Oregon led by the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts is designed to protect sage grouse habitat.

A project led by Ducks Unlimited and targeted to rice-growing areas of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, California and Texas was awarded $10 million. The project is supposed to help 800 rice growers on 380,000 to improve water quality and duck habitat. Remote sensing will be used to estimate the waterfowl carrying capacity in shallow water. The results will be monitored over time.  

Weller said the projects should be able to show results more quickly than traditional conversation programs. The program “allows partners to be creative and to use all the tools in the tool shed, whether its easements, whether its nutrient management, whether its putting in buffers, whether its different structural practices," he said. "They then get to design the solutions on a farm- or ranch- by-ranch approach.”
Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group, said that leveraging non-federal resources the way RCPP does and getting landowners to work together on a targeted project is a better way of addressing environmental challenges than the conventional approach of assisting one farmer at a time. But he noted that the RCPP funding represents “a very small percentage of the total resources that USDA has at its disposal through their conservation programs.”
The RCPP funding was divided into three pools, one addressing critical conservation areas such as the Mississippi River and Chesapeake Bay basins, a second targeting projects that cross state lines, and the third focused on projects that lie within a single state. 
The full list of projects and their USDA grants is here. A summary of the projects is here.