USDA earlier this week announced the launch of what Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calls "a new era in American conservation efforts" with a vigorous focus on public-private partnership. "This is an entirely new approach to soil and water conservation," Vilsack said in a May 27 telephone press conference. "We're giving private companies, local communities and other non-government partners a way to invest in what are essentially clean water start-up operations."
Pre-proposals for this new conservation program, called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP, are due July 14. Final proposals are due September 26. USDA hopes to make a final announcement of the funding awards by mid-October.
RCPP is authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. It streamlines conservation efforts by combining four programs (the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion) into one. The RCPP funding announcement can be found at grants.gov.
Goal is to include more new partners in projects
The RCPP will competitively award funds to soil and water conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region, he said. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others who want to join with ag and conservation organizations and farmers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives. Through RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat and other natural resources on private lands.
The new program will award $1.2 billion in federal money over five years, including $400 million the first year. Other partners will contribute another $1.2 billion over five years. The $2.4 billion initiative will allow the government to maximize what it could do on its own by getting others more directly involved in identifying and funding conservation programs that affect agriculture. The goal is to expand the program to include nontraditional partners such as private sector businesses and municipal water operations.
This a "watershed moment" for conservation
"The size of the project is not key; what is key is results," said Vilsack. "We're looking for innovative approaches that have never been tried before, partnerships that have never been developed before. This is a watershed moment in conservation in this country."
He cited an example of Kellogg Company, the cereal maker, working with the Nature Conservancy on a project to reduce runoff in a Lake Michigan watershed. Kellogg, based in Battle Creek, Mich., buys wheat for its cereals from farmers in the area. It's not just a farm-by-farm project. It's an opportunity to work with critical stakeholders: commercial interests, government and non-government organizations such as Nature Conservancy.
USDA's critical conservation areas include two that consist of all or nearly all of Iowa: the Mississippi River Basin and the Prairie Grasslands. Other areas are the Great Lakes Region, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta and the Colorado River Basin.
USDA will spend $1.2 billion in 5 years on RCPP
"Local decision making is empowered through this program. It brings together conservation groups, cities, townships, sportsmen groups, universities, agricultural organizations and others to design conservation projects that are tailored to our needs here in Iowa," says Jay Mar, NRCS state conservationist in Iowa.
More partners bring innovation, new ideas, resources and local expertise to solve problems. And with the investment of money by participating partners, USDA's $1.2 billion will leverage $2.4 billion for conservation over the life of the five-year program, he notes.
The RCPP has three funding pools:
1) 35% of total program funding directed to eight critical conservation areas, or CCAs, chosen by the agriculture secretary. Iowa is included in these two CCAs: the Mississippi River Basin and Prairie Grasslands
2) 40% directed to regional or multistate projects through a national competitive process
3) 25% directed to state-level projects through a competitive process established by NRCS state leaders. Iowa's specific funding priorities include:
Water Quality including ground and surface water
Soil Health/Soil Quality
Retention of Grasslands/Forestlands and other sensitive areas
For more information about Iowa's RCPP information go to the Iowa NRCS website. To learn about technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA service center. For more on the 2014 Farm Bill, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/FarmBill.