USDA invests in watersheds to improve water quality

Wisconsin State Farmer
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will add 30 new watersheds in 2018 to its premiere water quality initiative, which helps landowners improve water quality while strengthening agricultural operations.

MADISON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will add 30 new watersheds in 2018 to its premiere water quality initiative, which helps landowners improve water quality while strengthening agricultural operations. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will invest more than $30 million this year in 201 high-priority watersheds across the country.

The National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI), now in its seventh year, focuses resources in watersheds most in need and where farmers, ranchers and forest landowners can use conservation practices to make a difference.  

“Watershed studies have shown that targeting conservation on vulnerable acres leads to greater water quality improvements.” said Angela Biggs, NRCS state conservationist in Wisconsin. “This latest investment focuses on small watersheds, where we have opportunities to work with partners and farmers to accelerate conservation efforts and deliver real results for communities downstream.”

Through NWQI, farmers, ranchers and forest landowners receive one-on-one personalized advice and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to address a broad range of natural resource concerns, including water quality.

Funding in Wisconsin will now be available to producers for conservation systems in the Bear Lake-Little Wolf River watershed in Waupaca County.

Conservation systems include practices that promote soil health, reduce erosion and lessen nutrient runoff, such as cover crops, reduced tillage and nutrient management; waste management systems that treat agricultural waste and livestock manure; irrigation systems that capture and recycle nutrients back to the field; and wetland restoration that increases wildlife habitat, mitigates flooding, and improves water quality. These practices not only benefit natural resources but enhance agricultural productivity and profitability by improving soil health and optimizing the use of agricultural inputs.

USDA’s approach to improve water quality is working across the country. Recent successes include:

Montana: Irrigation improvements, off-stream watering, alternative source water for crop irrigation, and additional fencing, riparian re-vegetation, and stream channel work was accomplished with numerous partners in the Deep Creek watershed. The lower and middle segments of Deep Creek were removed from Montana’s list of impaired watersheds due to significant reductions in sediment loading.
Nebraska: Conservation treatments on land surrounding the Big Indian Creek Reservoir included cropland practices to reduce sediment and nutrients, removal of cattle from the stream, and renovation of the riparian area with grass and tree plantings. These conservation efforts resulted in a 70 percent reduction in phosphorus and sediment loads, contributing to its removal from Nebraska’s impaired waterbodies list in 2016.

In Oconto County, a partnership effort will work to develop a watershed assessment in the North Branch Little River watershed.  

NRCS will provide resources for these types of projects to leverage existing plans, data, and information, and fill gaps needed to complete watershed assessments and develop outreach plans. NRCS works closely with conservation partners and state water quality agencies to select watersheds where on-farm conservation can deliver the greatest benefits for clean water. See a list of watersheds.

Since 2012, NRCS has worked with more than 3,500 producers to adopt conservation practices on more than 730,000 acres in priority watersheds through NWQI.

“America’s farmers, ranchers and landowners nationwide are helping provide safe drinking water, cleaner waterways, and improved habitat for fish and wildlife,” Biggs said. “These targeted efforts represent a small part of the large annual investment to address water quality concerns across the nation.”

Similar efforts are ongoing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and in the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico and California Bay Delta regions. Producers interested in NWQI should contact their local USDA service center. Applications are taken on a continuous basis, and they are ranked and considered for funding several times per year.