Farmers’ efforts to address the nutrient runoff problem got a boost from an announcement that USDA will provide $33 million to help them make conservation improvements to enhance water quality in 174 watersheds across the nation.

The funding was announced by Ann Mills, deputy undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at USDA, on behalf of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, during the spring meeting of the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force in Little Rock, Ark.

The Task Force, which is co-chaired by Bill Northey, secretary of agriculture in Iowa and Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator, Office of Water, U.S. EPA, was created 15 years ago to help address the issue of the hypoxia or dead zone in the north Gulf of Mexico. The task force meets twice a year to review the progress being made to address the issue.

“This targeted approach provides a way to accelerate voluntary, private lands conservation investments to improve water quality and to focus water quality monitoring and assessment funds where they are most needed,” Mills said. “When hundreds of farms take action in one area, one watershed, it can make a real difference to improving water quality.”

National Water Quality Initiative

Funding is provided through the National Water Quality Initiative, administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Now in its third year, NWQI expanded to include more small watersheds across the nation, and it builds on efforts to target high-impact conservation in areas such as the Mississippi River basin and Gulf of Mexico.

Mills also said USDA would be making a major announcement concerning the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which was included in the Agriculture Act of 2014, the new farm bill.

“We are thrilled with the new farm bill,” she said. “We are thrilled that the conservation title is as robust as it is. There is one program, which I think many of you have been tracking and that is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Secretary Vilsack will be making an announcement about this program very soon.” (That announcement came on May 27.)

“I did want to say we are particularly excited about RCPP,” she noted. “It builds on the participation we have here in the Mississippi River Basin Initiative and on the strengths of how these partnerships have worked between NRCS and the state water quality and conservation agencies.”

USDA and EPA officials “are looking to continue that momentum” of creating innovations with local farmers and their organizations.

Farm tour

While in Arkansas for the Hypoxia Task Force meeting, Mills toured farms to see firsthand how targeted water quality conservation techniques are making a difference on the ground. Arkansas has three watersheds in the National Water Quality Initiative.

With the help of those partners, NRCS identified priority watersheds in each state where on-farm conservation investments will deliver the greatest water quality benefits. State water quality agencies and local partners also provide assistance with watershed planning, additional dollars and assistance for conservation, along with outreach to farmers and ranchers.

“The collaborative goal is to ensure people and wildlife have clean, safe water,” said NRCS Chief Jason Weller, speaking in Washington. "Water quality improvement takes time, but by working together and leveraging our technical and financial assistance, we are better able to help farmers and ranchers take voluntary actions in improving water quality.”

Eligible landowners will receive assistance under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program for installing conservation systems that help avoid, trap and control run-off in these high-priority watersheds. These practices may include nutrient management, cover crops, conservation cropping systems, filter strips, and in some cases, edge-of-field water quality monitoring.

Through several different processes, NRCS and partners are measuring the effects of conservation practices on water quality. Edge-of-field monitoring and an NRCS tool, Water Quality Index for Agricultural Runoff, help landowners assess the positive impact of their conservation efforts.

NRCS has helped farmers install monitoring stations to measure the effectiveness of conservation systems. Arkansas has 14 edge-of-field monitoring stations, which help focus the right kind of conservation on the right acres to improve water quality.

To learn more about the Hypoxia Task Force meet, visit Farmers face risks using too little nitrogen as well as too much.