Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that $33 million in assistance will be provided to farmers and ranchers to make conservation improvements that will improve water quality in 174 watersheds. The announcement was made on the Secretary’s behalf by Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Ann Mills during a Hypoxia Task Force meeting, held this week in Little Rock, AR.
“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.”
Funding is provided through the National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI), administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). 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, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes.
While in Arkansas for the Hypoxia Task Force meeting, Deputy Under Secretary Mills toured a farm to see firsthand how targeted water quality conservation techniques are making a difference on the ground. Arkansas has three watersheds in the NWQI, all of which drain to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.
With the help of partners at the local, state and national level, 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. Through NWQI, these partnerships are growing and offering a model for collaborative work in other watersheds.
“The collaborative goal is to ensure people and wildlife have clean, safe water,” said NRCS Chief Jason Weller. “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 while maintaining or improving agricultural productivity.” 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.