WASHINGTON, Nov. 3, 2015 –USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will invest $30 million this year in 33 new projects and 40 existing projects to improve water quality in high priority watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin. The projects are aimed at reducing runoff of nutrients and sediment to waters that eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

“By targeting small priority watersheds within the Mississippi River Basin, we are helping to deliver local water quality benefits and contributing to large-scale improvements for the basin as a whole,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release. “Water quality is important to everyone, at all levels of government, to private landowners, and in rural and urban areas alike. The many partnerships created through this initiative are both impressive and promising to the future of these watersheds.”

The projects are funded through NRCS’ Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), which uses several 2014 farm bill conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), to help farmers adopt conservation systems to improve water quality, enhance wildlife habitat, and restore wetlands. USDA says that since MRBI’s start in 2009, NRCS has worked with more than 600 partners and 5,000 farmers to make conservation improvements on more than 1 million acres in the region.

Nutrients from wastewater and agricultural runoff are blamed for the annual algae blooms that have been forming in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists say the blooms suck up oxygen in the Gulf’s waters, creating so-called “dead zones” covering thousands of square miles where marine life struggles to survive.

Through these partnerships, the initiative more than quadrupled the number of contracts addressing water quality concerns in targeted project areas. NRCS will invest $30 million per year over the next three years, as part of a $100 million commitment from the 2014 farm bill, according to USDA.

New projects include:

Kickapoo River, Wisconsin: NRCS will work with Crawford and Vernon County Land Conservation Departments and others to assist landowners and producers in addressing nutrient and sediment losses from cropland and degraded pastures. Citizen water quality monitoring from the Valley Stewardship Network volunteers will provide data to support load-reduction goals. NRCS plans to invest $847,000 in fiscal year 2016 as part of a $5.3 million commitment in the watershed over four years.

Upper Birds Point, Missouri: NRCS will work with Mississippi County Soil and Water Conservation District and others to target high vulnerability cropland and implement a system of practices to reduce sediment and nutrient loss, improve migratory bird habitat and protect shallow groundwater. NRCS plans to invest $436,000 in fiscal year 2016 as part of a $2 million commitment in the watershed over four years.

Upper Bayou-Macon, Arkansas: NRCS will work with Desha County Conservation District and others to implement water quality practices on 35 percent of high-priority acres to significantly reduce nutrient and sediment loading to Upper Bayou Macon and improve habitat for four threatened and endangered aquatic species found in Bayou Macon – the Pallid Sturgeon, Fat Pocketbook, Pink Mucket and Scaleshell. NRCS plans to invest $794,000 in fiscal year 2016 as a part of a $4 million commitment in the watershed over four years.

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Slocum Creek, Iowa: NRCS will work with the East Pottawattamie Soil and Water Conservation District, the City of Oakland, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, among others, to identify and treat high priority acres in the watershed.  This project will support efforts to improve water quality for residents of the watershed as well as the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy.  NRCS plans to invest $294,000 in fiscal year 2016 as part of a nearly $700,000 commitment in the watershed over the next three years.

For a full list of the projects, click here.

Findings from a 2013 report by the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) show that conservation work on cropland in the Mississippi River Basin has reduced the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the Gulf of Mexico by 18 percent and 20 percent, respectively. USDA says that CEAP models have also shown that the targeted approach of MRBI has enhanced the per-acre conservation benefit by 70 percent for sediment losses, 30 percent for nitrogen losses and 40 percent for phosphorus losses, when compared to general program activities.

MRBI is one of  several landscape-level efforts to address water quality. Similar efforts are ongoing in the Great Lakes region, Gulf of Mexico region, Chesapeake Bay watershed and California Bay Delta region.


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