Bill Knight - January 7

Macomb, IL – Farmers can cut their costs and boost productivity, wildlife habitat can be protected, and "dead zones" in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi can be reduced under a government plan to reduce ag runoff of chemicals such as excess nitrogen and phosphorous.

A few government programs have tried to help create such a win-win situation, but they've been ineffective, and other attempts by governments, educational institutions, and private-sector groups appeal to producers to make practices more effective, but some farmers remain unaware of them, are hesitant to change how they operate, or have little financial incentive to change.

To address such problems, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expanding a program designed to get "best practices" working in the fields, and it could benefit 41 watersheds in 12 states, including the Upper Mississippi River sub-basin and both Lower and Upper Illinois River basins.

As part of its Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has announced that it has targeted the Mississippi River watershed for pilot projects over the next four years. Farmers selected to participate in the $320 million program will be given financial incentives, plus dozens of appropriate practices to choose from, to help reduce runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "The USDA is committed to working cooperatively with agricultural producers, partner organizations, and state and local agencies to improve water quality and the quality of life for the tens of millions of people who live in the Mississippi River Basin. The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative will help. I encourage as many eligible participants as possible to join us in this major conservation effort."

The initiative will provide millions of dollars in USDA financial aid through 2013 for voluntary projects in priority watersheds in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and nine other states

The NRCS is offering the initiative in Fiscal Years 2010 through 2013, dedicating at least $80 million in additional funds each year. Out of the annual allotment, the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative would get $50 million; Wetlands Reserve Enhancement would receive $25 million; and the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) would get $5 million.

All these improvements will be achieved through a conservation system approach to manage and optimize nitrogen and phosphorous within fields to minimize runoff and reduce downstream nutrient loading, the USDA says. NRCS will provide producers assistance with a system of practices that will control soil erosion, improve soil quality, and provide wildlife habitat while managing runoff and drainage water for improved water quality.

The NRCS is managing the initiative. Its State Conservationists from the 12 watershed states selected the watersheds with guidance from State Technical Committees and state water quality agencies. Selections were based on the potential for managing nitrogen and phosphorus - nutrients associated with water quality problems in the Basin - while maintaining agricultural productivity and benefiting wildlife.

Also, smaller watershed projects will be selected, too, through a competitive process under NRCS' CCPI. NRCS assistance will be leveraged with contributions from partners, expanding the capacity available to improve water quality throughout the basin.