Today, the USDA announced 115 grant awards under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a new program established under the 2014 Farm Bill that relies on non-agricultural partners to help farmers implement conservation practices to address natural resources concerns, including water quality. The program is a novelty as it is the first USDA conservation program that takes a partnership approach to achieving conservation goals on agricultural lands.
The top natural resource of concern that will receive the highest percentage of RCPP funding, 50 percent, is water quality – no surprises here. NACWA has long advocated that water quality impacts related to agricultural working lands need to be front burner issues for policymakers. NACWA led the Healthy Waters Coalition during this last Farm Bill reauthorization to raise awareness of the need to strengthen links between agricultural and water quality policy and played a key role in elevating the priority given to USDA conservation investments that address water quality challenges. We are pleased that this first round of RCPP funding is meeting this policy goal.
We also urged the municipal water and wastewater utility community to step up to the RCPP challenge and become partners with the agricultural community to help the program fulfill its goals. We are pleased several did.
The City of Cedar Rapids, a NACWA member, received a RCPP award as a leading partner for the Middle Cedar Partnership Project that will focus on working with local conservation partners, farmers and landowners to install best management practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands and saturated buffers to help improve water quality, water quantity and soil health in the Cedar River Watershed. The City teamed up with key agricultural partners, notably, the Iowa Soybean Association, to put together a compelling project to address nutrients along the Middle Cedar River. With the announcement last week that a neighboring Iowa city, Des Moines, is pursuing litigation to force action by farmers to address nutrient run-off, a good case study will emerge in Iowa – ground zero in the battle to reduce nutrients in our waterways – on which pathway is more effective in achieving water quality gains over the next several years.
Another NACWA member, the Madison Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD), is a key partner in the Yahara Watershed Pilot project which is being led by the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department and will advance a new regulatory compliance strategy in Wisconsin to meet water quality objectives for phosphorus. This new regulatory compliance strategy is formally referred to as the Watershed Adaptive Management Option, and MMSD is the first entity in Wisconsin to pilot test the Adaptive Management option. Collaboration between point and nonpoint sources, and implementation of cost effective, watershed based solutions are cornerstones of the adaptive management approach.
Finally, the City of Columbus, Ohio and the City of Baltimore, Maryland are participating partners in two additional RCPP awarded projects addressing water quality concerns in their respective states. If successful, all these partnerships have the potential to help municipalities avoid massive investments in treatment technologies to remove nutrients from surface waters and drinking water supplies, saving ratepayers money while improving the environment.
Last year when USDA announced availability of the first round of funding for the RCPP, no one was sure how many non- agricultural partners would step forward to assume responsibility for helping farmers improve their environmental performance; however, the response was overwhelming. USDA reports that nearly 600 proposals requesting nearly $2.8 billion were submitted for only $400 million in available financing. Today’s announcement that only 115 projects were awarded RCPP dollars indicates that not only was the project selection process highly competitive, but that there is a large appetite (no pun intended) for a more collaborative approach to solving environmental challenges linked to farming practices. It also indicates that among the stakeholder class concerned about the environmental performance by agricultural lands, there is a sense of urgency in putting all orrs in the water and taking action now.
The RCPP ushers in a new era in conservation, one that can potentially benefit both farmers and ratepayers living in our urban centers – and lead to better environmental gains for everyone. Let’s get to work!