Tuesday, May 27, 2014

USDA Names Mississippi River as One of Eight National Critical Conservation Areas

Today, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the availability of what the it termed "substantial investments in conservation projects across the country" through its implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (or "RCPP"); a new 2014 Farm Bill program.  In making the announcement, the agency also designated the Mississippi River Basin as one of eight priority conservation areas that will have access to a "Critical Conservation Area" pool of RCPP funding to be made available nationwide.  The designation of a 13-state Mississippi River Basin area as a Critical Conservation Area, according to USDA will "accelerate conservation" and "continue to reduce nutrient and sediment loading to local and regional water bodies and to improve efficiency in using water supplies, particularly in the southern states."
Critical Conservation Areas
(click to enlarge)

The RCPP is designed to facilitate partner-producer agreements that will further conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of soil, water and wildlife on a regional scale. It is anticipated that partners will bring cash matches, technical expertise and local knowledge to the conservation picture.  Those partners may include organizations such as agricultural and silvicultural producer associations, groups of producers, State or local governments, Native American tribes, farmer cooperatives, water or irrigation districts, municipal water or wastewater treatment entities, conservation nongovernmental organizations, and institutions of higher education.

According to the NRCS RCPP web site, the Program will combine the purposes and  functions of four former regional conservation programs – the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program, the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative and the Great Lakes Basin Program."  NRCS will allocate RCPP funds across three different categories: 25% to projects selected through a state competitive process administered by State Technical Committees; 40% for projects based on a national competitive process; and 35% for projects in the designated Critical Conservation Areas.

Lands eligible for RCPP projects can include cropland, grassland, rangeland, pastureland, nonindustrial forest land, and other land "incidental to agricultural production" (such as wetlands and buffers).  Eligible conservation activities envisioned for the Program include:
  • Water quality restoration or enhancement, including nutrient management and sediment reduction;
  • Water quality conservation, restoration or enhancement relating to surface water and groundwater resources;
  • Drought mitigation;
  • Flood prevention;
  • Water retention;
  • Air quality improvement;
  • Habitat conservation, restoration and enhancement;
  • Erosion control and sediment reduction;
  • Forest restoration; and
  • Easement acquisition activities associated with wetland restoration and protection, or the preservation of working agricultural lands.
In evaluating projects proposed for funding, NRCS may give higher priority to proposals that:
  • Deliver high percentages of applied conservation to address conservation priorities or local, State, regional, or national conservation initiatives;
  • Significantly leverage non-Federal financial and technical resources and coordinate with other local, State, regional, or national efforts;
  • Provide innovation in conservation methods and delivery; and
  • Assist producers in meeting or avoiding the need for a natural resource regulatory requirement.
Along with the Mississippi River Basin, the other Critical Conservation Areas include the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Great Lakes Region, Colorado River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, Prairie Grasslands and California Bay Delta.  In making the designations announced today, USDA gave priority to areas:
  • With significant agricultural production;
  • Benefiting from water quality or quantity  improvement, and
  • Containing landowners and producers that need to meet or avoid negatively impacting agricultural regulations.
The announcement for program funding will be made available shortly on the grants.gov web site, with more information on the Program available at this nrcs.usda.gov web site.

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