The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has announced the first set of projects it will be funding to improve water quality in critical watersheds. The $100 million that will be spent over the life of the 2014 farm bill will also “strengthen agricultural operations” according to the department.
“We know that when we target our efforts to the places most in need, we see stronger results,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “These projects focus on watersheds in need, where we have opportunities to work with partners and farmers to get conservation work on the ground.”
The new projects in the Mid-South include:
- Arkansas, Caney Creek, Cross County.
- Arkansas, Strawberry River, Fulton and Izard counties.
- Arkansas, Upper Cache River, Clay and Green counties.
- Louisiana, Cane Bayou - Little Creek, Richland Parish.
- Louisiana, Lake St. Joseph-Clark Bayou, Tensas Parish.
- Mississippi, Tommie Bayou/Brook Bayou, Boliver County.
- Mississippi, Christmas Lake Bayou/Stillwater Bayou, Boliver and Washington counties.
- Mississippi, Long Lake, Sunflower and Boliver counties.
- Missouri, James Bayou - St. Johns Diversion Ditch and Mud Ditch, Mississippi and New Madrid counties.
- Missouri, Upper Buffalo Creek Ditch, Dunklin County.
- Tennessee, Middle Fork/ Forked Deer, Dyer, Crockett, Gibson, Henderson, Madison counties.
Shortly after the projects were announced, Delta Farm Press spoke with Meghan Wilson, NRCS coordinator of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI). Among her comments:
On the MRBI mission…
“The primary goal of MRBI is to make water quality improvements on agricultural land. That benefits both local water resource concerns and also reduce nutrient runoff that eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.
“In many places in the southern part of the Mississippi River Basin, there’s another benefit: a reduction of dependence on groundwater. That is through irrigation management, water recovery systems and the like. Those provide a water quantity benefit – conserving water – and nutrient/sediment benefits. That keeps nutrients from running off the farms. We’ve seen huge impacts from that work in a lot of places.
“The MRBI has a targeted approach so our NRCS state offices work with partners like conservation districts, state water quality agencies, and NGOs to identify where conservation on agricultural land could see the most benefit for water quality. Many of the places chosen align with states’ nutrient reduction strategies. That’s another way we prioritize our watersheds.”
How do you monitor these projects and ensure they’re being successful?
“Our local and state staff set goals in each watershed. A lot of those are tied to a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) recommendations or other efforts already going on.
“We don’t dictate from a national level any type of load reduction in terms of nutrients. That’s partly because it depends on what’s already happening in the watershed. Without a baseline, you don’t really know how much good you’re doing. So, each watershed has different goals that are later reviewed here at headquarters.”
How long do the projects last?
“Most of the projects have funding through FY2018. We have a commitment of $100 million for EQIP through the life of the 2014 farm bill, which expires in 2018.
“Some of the projects that started under the last farm bill we hope to wrap up this year and next.”
On a Mid-South success story…
“In terms of past projects, there was a delisting (from the impaired waterway list) of several streams in the St. Francis River watershed in Arkansas. Those streams were downstream of a couple of MRBI projects in the last round. There was a huge water quality benefit that helped the delisting to happen.
“I believe the area also had groundwater resource concerns. So, the projects tied together the water quality and quantity elements.”
“This partnership approach means we really try work closely to come up with strategies that align with efforts already underway in the states. In that way, conservation can make a huge difference.
“This is only the first round of watershed project selections. We’ll be making a few more later this year. There are still opportunities for those wanting to be involved.”