USDA Tackles National Water Quality Initiative

Aim is to get local communities focused on programs that will have a solid impact on fresh water.

Published on: May 9, 2012

Enhancing local water quality is a big chore, but USDA and its Natural Resource Conservation Service is working on a new initiative aimed at doing just that. The agency has identified 157 selected watersheds in all 50 states that need attention. The aim is to have farmers in those locally identified watersheds help improve conditions.

"These watersheds were identified by local and state officials," says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He identified the effort, that starts with $33 million in USDA Environmental Quality Improvement Program money, as one that could expand with added resources form local governments.

USDA Tackles National Water Quality Initiative
USDA Tackles National Water Quality Initiative

"Through this initiative we can continue partnering with local governments, farmer and rancher groups to bring added resources to the table to expand the impact of this iniative."

Dave White, chief, NRCS, explains that the new program builds on efforts already underway. "These watersheds were not picked by anyone in Washington, these were state driven and locally determined from the 303(d) list," he says. The 303(d) list includes polluted waters that could be used for drinking, recreation, aquatic habitat and industrial use.

He notes that areas with 12-digit hydrologic unit codes were reviewed for each state. With a HUC the higher the number the smaller the watershed, White explains. "To give you a sense of the size where we're operating the smaller the HUC number the larger the watershed. A four-digit HUC would include the Potomac watershed. A 10-digit code is about 500,000 acres in size. A 12-digit code is for areas that are 10,000 to 40,000 acres in size, where we think we can make a real difference."

In addition, he notes that in each state at least one of watershed has already been under monitoring, which means actions taken can be measured from the beginning. "We will know the impact going forward," White says.

Vilsack adds that this program compliments working lands work and continues watershed improvement work begun several years ago "We are trying to address some critical water quality issues," he notes.

Vilsack and White stressed that the $33 million figure from USDA is just a start with Vilsack calling it a catalyst for other groups to work from to enhance their own efforts. And federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are contributing funds above the $33 million amount. "We're entering a new world where not all the old rules apply," Vilsack says. "We want to incent the right kind of activity."

With concerns about the potential for shrinking conservation acreage in the future, he notes a program like this watershed initiative could make a difference. "I'm not as pessimistic as some are about conservation, we have more acres in conservation than ever before," Vilsack adds.

And that "catalyst" money is "priming the pump for integrated and coordinated investments," Vilsack says. "We're going to assess what works and incent the best practices for the future."

Farmers in one of those 157 identified areas can apply for USDA EQIP project money for their operation. The application process opens May 18 and lasts through June 15.