The Senate Farm Bill proposes a small but important step toward encouraging better nutrient management practices by farmers. This is accomplished in a newly created Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) that provides special five-year conservation funding to farmers who undertake nutrient management activities in critical conservation areas. Although yet to be enacted by Congress, the provision will likely remain in a final Farm Bill package that Congress eventually passes either later this year or next. So the question to ask is, will farmers take advantage of Congress’ invitation to make progress toward reducing agricultural nutrient runoff? Or perhaps a more salient question for NACWA members is, will wastewater treatment utilities and municipal stormwater agencies take advantage of this new program and partner with farmers to make progress on controlling nutrients?
The RCPP would replace several current conservation programs that focus on water-related issues or encourage partnerships with non-agricultural entities, including the Agriculture Water Enhancement Program, the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Great Lakes Program, and the Cooperative Conservation Partnerships Initiative. The program allows non-agricultural entities, such as wastewater utilities and municipal stormwater agencies, to form partnerships with farmers to implement conservation practices on the farm, with a special focus on farms located in critical conservation areas struggling with priority conservation challenges, such as the Mississippi River Basin, and on water quality impairments caused by nutrients. Once a partnership is formed and an agreement approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, funding is provided to the farmer to implement conservation activities agreed to in the partnership agreement. In the case of an agreement focused on nutrient management, the farmer can receive a commitment of five-year funding.
The non-agricultural partner must commit to bringing a fair amount of resources to the table in the form of effort needed to identify agricultural partners, a suite of necessary conservation activities, and meeting reporting and monitoring obligations. The RCPP provides stormwater and wastewater treatment utilities, however, an opportunity to work upstream with farmers in their local watersheds to address nutrient loadings, potentially avoiding costly treatment upgrades at the plant, in addition to receiving assistance from USDA. Taking advantage of the RCPP also could prove quite timely, given the Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework and its nod toward trading as a way of meeting obligations under the Clean Water Act. A utility located in a nutrient-impaired watershed facing the prospect of more stringent nutrient discharge standards may decide to undertake a partnership with a farmer sooner rather than later to prove whether greater nutrient reductions can in fact be achieved by going upstream to a farm—before a regulator comes knocking.