WASHINGTON, March 10, 2015 – An unusual alliance of grain processors, environmental groups and municipal water utilities wants new enrollments in the Conservation Reserve Program targeted to practices that will improve water quality and wildlife habitat. 

The groups are asking the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency to reserve at least 800,000 acres in CRP enrollments annually for the continuous signup process. That would limit the amount of larger tracts that could be taken out of production through periodic, general signups.

Practices eligible to be enrolled in CRP through the continuous signup process include grass waterways, windbreaks, salt-tolerant vegetation, wetland restoration and buffers for wildlife habitat.

At the end of 2014, about 24.3 million acres were enrolled in CRP. Some 6.1 million acres were enrolled through the continuous process, or related initiatives, and 1.3 million of those are in contracts that will expire over the next three years.

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FSA “should refocus its efforts to meet the goals of today’s CRP to enroll cropland and marginal pastureland that benefits water quality, wildlife habitat, air quality and reduces soil erosion,” the groups said in a letter.

The letter comes as the Des Moines water utility is threatening to sue several Iowa counties over farm runoff.

The organizations that signed the letter included American Rivers, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Corn Refiners Association, Feed Industry Association, National Association of Conservation Districts, National Grain and Feed Association, National Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Aviva Glaser, a policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, which didn’t sign the letter, said the initiatives the groups want targeted would provide substantial environmental benefits but that it’s also “critically important” to enroll larger tracts to provide wildlife habitat for species that need them, including mule deer, pronghorn and ground-nesting birds.

The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, has complained that USDA isn’t conducting a general signup this year.