Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Jan. 5. announced a host of new efforts to help Iowa's farmers and livestock producers conserve water and soil resources and improve nutrient management practices on the state's 30 million acres of farmland. Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will expand access to USDA's signature conservation programs for Iowa producers, making available up to 85,000 additional acres for sensitive lands, and better target grants and loans for technical assistance and capital improvements, while working with state partners to more closely align priorities in an improved "watershed-based strategy" for nutrient management.
Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $2.2 billion in Iowa conservation efforts and helped to enroll more than 4.5 million acres of Iowa working lands in USDA conservation programs. Through USDA's Conservation Reserve Program, which provides rental payments to producers to idle and conserve land, Iowa producers have contributed to a reduction of 260 million pounds of nitrogen and 534 million pounds of phosphorus in the Mississippi River Basin between 2008 and 2013. In addition, findings from a 2014 USDA report show that conservation work on cropland in the Mississippi River Basin, including Iowa cropland, has reduced the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the Gulf of Mexico by 18 and 20 percent, respectively.
The goal in Iowa, said Vilsack, is to help the state replicate the totality of a watershed-based plan such as USDA's Mississippi River Basin Initiative across Iowa's major state watersheds, with a concerted, science-based approach.
"Today, USDA is making a decade-long commitment to Iowa producers and residents to provide coordination, assistance, and greater access to available programming above and beyond what we currently offer. In 2016, we will begin by making available up to 85,000 new acres for rental payments reserved for the most sensitive lands, equivalent to roughly a $175 million investment into the state's land resources. In addition, we will work with state partners to remove barriers and backlogs to other conservation reserve efforts so USDA resources are fully utilized. With regard to technical assistance, if our appropriations remain at the current funding level for the next decade, USDA will be able to provide $660 million in targeted assistance through USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. And for capital improvements to water and wastewater treatment facilities in small communities, we will expand access to the $25 million in loans and grants currently offered to Iowa, for a $250 million investment over the next ten years. As we make these investments over the next decade, USDA will work collaboratively with producers, state government, land grant institutions and local conservation partners to monitor and report on progress in a consistent, transparent manner."
Vilsack said USDA is ready to undertake the following efforts in Iowa:
- Invest an estimated $660 million over the next decade to ensure USDA's Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) (which collectively invest an average of $66 million per year in Iowa conservation efforts at the current funding levels appropriated by Congress) are coordinated and complimentary to reinforce the state of Iowa's watershed approach for nutrient management. USDA conservation experts will ensure plans target conservation systems where assistance will be most effective.
- Over the next decade, USDA will partner with organizations to promote and target wetland restoration to address water quality and habitat needs. Over the next five years, USDA will make available as much as 75,000 additional acres through the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Gaining Ground program, part of the CRP program, targeted to grassland birds, and 10,000 additional acres in the CRP Farmable Wetlands program, designed to restore previously farmed wetlands and wetland buffers to improve vegetation and water flow.
- Additionally, USDA will work with Iowa's government to identify and remove barriers to the full use of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funding, which targets high-priority conservation on environmentally sensitive lands, in the 37-county area that makes up the Raccoon River Watershed.
- USDA will accelerate the process of working with Iowa's government, land-grant institutions and conservation partners to develop an ecosystem market program to better coordinate the efforts between public and private sector partners focused on nutrient management.
- Enhance outreach and education efforts to Iowa partners to ensure they are fully utilizing and leveraging USDA's Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP. Nationally, RCPP has leveraged $800 million in conservation funds from USDA and partners to date, including three significant projects focused on Iowa: the Middle Cedar Partnership Project led by the city of Cedar Rapids; the Iowa Targeted Demonstration Watershed Partnership Project led by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship; and a national RCPP funding pool project led by the Missouri Department of Conservation focused on regional grassland bird and grazing lands enhancement.
- USDA will work with Iowa's state government, other federal agencies, and local and municipal governments to ensure the $25 million in existing and available USDA resources for water and wastewater treatment facilities in Iowa are being fully utilized.
- Help to identify an independent body to track coordinated investments, monitor results, and report to the public and stakeholders.
Since 2009, USDA has worked with private landowners to implement voluntary conservation practices that conserve and clean the water we drink and preserve the soil that grows our food. Today, more than 500,000 producers participate in USDA partnerships to protect land and water on over 400 million acres nationwide. USDA support—leveraged with historic outside investments from partners across the country—boosts producer incomes and rewards them for their good work. Since 2009 under Secretary Vilsack's leadership, USDA has invested more than $2.2 billion in Iowa conservation and water quality efforts. Today, 4.5 million acres of Iowa farmland is enrolled in one of USDA's conservation programs.