Dave White, chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, on Thursday announced a new voluntary program designed to help improve the health of the Mississippi River Basin. "USDA is going to partner with farmers to implement a range of land stewardship practices, including conservation tillage, nutrient management, and other innovative practices," said White.
The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative provides $320 million over four years to support programs in 12 states -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin – to help farmers voluntarily implement conservation practices which avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff, improve wildlife habitat, and maintain agricultural productivity.
Funds will come from other programs such as Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, Conservation Innovation Grants, and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. This is in addition to other NRCS program funding and assistance such as Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Participation in this initiative, which will be managed by NRCS, will be made available through a competitive process for potential partners at the local, state and national levels.
Key to this initiative are the partnerships, noted White. Organizations such as the Farm Bureau, commodity organizations, The Environmental Defense Fund, etc. can respond. These partners would select watersheds and tell us how they want to tackle the problems."
Each state will select one to three large watersheds of 250,000 to 1.2 million acres and then within those watersheds select areas of 10,000 to 40,000 acres within those to apply conservation measures. "We plan to go with the responses that have the most impact on the land," said White.
NRCS wants proposals by the end of October and plans to select eligible watersheds by late January or early February. "We want the signup to be in March or April," noted White.
White admitted there are some complicating issues that will have to be worked out such as how to establish good baselines and the lag time between when the conservation practices are applied and measurable results. "It can take from several months to 15 years to see results," he noted. "But I think we can work through this."
"I want to stress this is a voluntary program," noted White. "We are trying to address a national issue with a lot of flexibility and control at the state and local level."