U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on January 14 announced that more than 100 high-impact soil-saving projects across all 50 states, including Iowa, will receive more than $370 million as part of USDA's new Regional Conservation Partnership Program or RCPP.
Later that afternoon, a press conference was held at the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship in Des Moines to explain the RCPP program and how the grant money Iowa is receiving will be used. "The RCPP's focus is on public-private partnerships, enabling private companies, local communities and other non-government partners a way to invest in efforts to keep our land resilient and our water clean, and to promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism and outdoor recreation, and other industries," said Kirk Hanlin, assistant chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Washington, D.C.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, along with Jay Mar, state conservationist for NRCS in Iowa, joined Hanlin in speaking to the press conference in Des Moines.
Des Moines Water Works plans to file lawsuit against 3 counties
The announcement of the $5.6 million in grants coming to Iowa through RCPP comes as city, state and federal leaders debate the best way to address the issue of nitrates and phosphorus in Iowa streams, rivers and lakes. Last week, the Des Moines Water Works notified three rural counties in northwest Iowa that it plans to sue them, saying high nitrate levels leaving local drainage districts in that part of the state were contributing to excess levels of pollutants in the Raccoon River. The river is a source of drinking water for 500,000 people in central Iowa. The federal government limits nitrate levels in drinking water to protect consumers' health.
Northey says the lawsuit announced by the Des Moines Water Works is a bad idea. He emphasizes that he still supports using the voluntary approach, getting farmers to take action voluntarily to control soil erosion and improve water quality. Rather than imposing mandatory requirements, he firmly believes education and demonstration projects along with cost-share incentives are the answer to get more farmers to upgrade and improve their water quality efforts. Northey says the regulatory route is the wrong way to go.
Project will promote farmer-to-farmer education and demonstration
Hanlin made the trip to Des Moines to unveil the new project which is part of USDA's new, innovative RCPP program. "The Iowa Water Quality Initiative will promote farmer-to-farmer education and practice implementation through demonstration projects to help improve water quality," he says. "The Iowa Targeted Demonstration Watersheds Partnership Project is one of two projects which originate in Iowa and are receiving a RCPP grant. The other one is the City of Cedar Rapids water quality project."
The Iowa Targeted Demonstration Watersheds Partnership Project will receive $3.5 million through RCPP. With the funding, the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship (IDALS) and its 20 project partners, will be able to increase available resources through existing demonstration projects in key watersheds, conduct farmer-to-farmer outreach and assist farmers in implementing conservation practices.
"The projects will focus on the adoption of conservation practices most beneficial to reducing nutrient loading in up to nine watersheds in our state," says Northey. "This effort is tied directly to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and will serve as models for future work. It will focus on farmer-to-farmer outreach and education."
Partners will contribute $400 million, doubling USDA's investment
This year's RCPP projects nationwide will engage hundreds of partners with wide-ranging interests, including communities, conservation districts, agribusiness, non-government organizations, for-profit and non-profit organizations, state and federal agencies and tribal governments. In addition to USDA funds, partners will contribute an estimated $400 million, which is more than USDA's $370 million investment.
"RCPP puts our partners in the driver's seat," says Jay Mar, state conservationist for USDA's National Resources Conservation Service in Iowa. "These projects are led locally, and demonstrate the value of strong public-private partnerships that deliver solutions to tough natural resource challenges."
USDA also awards RCPP funds to City of Cedar Rapids
In addition to the $3.5 million for the Iowa Targeted Demonstration Watersheds Partnership Project, USDA will provide a little over $2 million to Cedar Rapids for an RCPP project to improve water quality. This Middle Cedar Partnership Project 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.
"There is an urgent need to address nitrate concentrations and extreme flood events in the Cedar River," says Mar. "This Middle Cedar Partnership Project will lay the foundation for needed improvements, and bring together a diverse group of conservation partners."
The total of $5.6 million in RCPP grants for Iowa ($3.5 for the state of Iowa and about $2.1 for Cedar Rapids) will be matched with about $9 million from the partners who are participating in Iowa, says Northey. Iowa's project is being coordinated by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and has 20 partners. The Cedar Rapids project is expected to have 16 partners.
With many proposals to choose from, this was extremely competitive
Nationally, more than 600 pre-proposals were submitted to NRCS for the RCPP in 2014. Of those, more than 200 were invited to submit full proposals. "With so many strong project proposals, the project selection process was extremely competitive," says Mar. "RCPP is a 5-year $1.2 billion USDA commitment; projects not selected in this first year may be eligible in subsequent years."
For more information on Iowa's RCPP projects, visit NRCS Iowa's webpage. To learn about technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA service center.