In late January, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation and the state of Arkansas have entered into a new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) agreement to reduce nutrient, bacterial and sediment loading in the Illinois River Watersheds.

“USDA is proud to work with the state of Arkansas to enroll up to 15,000 acres of eligible cropland and marginal pastureland to enhance the water quality, biological diversity and aquatic habitats of the Illinois River watersheds,” Vilsack said.

The agreement is for the establishment of riparian buffers and filter strips on 15,000 acres of marginal pastureland and cropland with a goal of reducing 10,000 tons of annual sediment loading into local streams and waterways.

The sign-up date for this voluntary program is expected to be announced soon. Farmers and ranchers will be able to apply for this program at their Farm Service Agency service centers.

FSA will administer the Arkansas State CREP project on behalf of CCC, working with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the state of Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, as well as with other state CREP partners.

The primary objectives of this agreement are to conserve, restore and protect water quality and other natural resources within the targeted area through the installation and maintenance of riparian buffers.

The program will provide producers, through financial and technical assistance, an opportunity to protect water resources and curb development by entering into permanent or long-term easement agreements.

The following national Conservation Reserve Program conservation practices will be made available for eligible land focusing on water resource improvement: riparian buffer (cropland and marginal pastureland), up to 9,750 acres; marginal pastureland wildlife habitat buffer, up to 5,250 acres.

Under the Arkansas CREP, participants will receive annual rental payments as well as one-time incentive payments from CCC and the state of Arkansas for voluntarily enrolling land in contracts and installing conservation practices. The CCC will also pay up to 50 percent of the cost of installing conservation practices, which have been specialized to meet Arkansas' unique natural resource conditions and CREP goals.

The state will allow eligible participants to utilize a riparian and wetland restoration state tax credit for out-of-pocket costs incurred as part of the CREP practice installation. CREP participants will also be provided, on a voluntary basis, an opportunity to enroll federal contract acres in a state permanent or long-term easement.

The total cost of the Arkansas state CREP over the life of the project is estimated at $25 million for a total enrollment of 15,000 acres. The state of Arkansas will contribute $6 million to support the overall program cost.