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USDA to invest $56M to help farmers improve water quality

February 7, 2020  By Drainage Contractor

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will invest $56 million this year to help agricultural producers improve water quality in more than 300 high-priority watersheds across the country.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is continuing two of its landscape-level water quality efforts, the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) and National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI).

“We’ve learned that when we partner with producers to deliver conservation practices to critical watersheds, we see a positive impact,” said NRCS chief Matthew Lohr, who made the announcement at the Hypoxia Task Force meeting on February 7. “Through these partnerships we maximize the delivery of our conservation efforts which yields greater results to water quality and benefits the public, our natural resources and farmers’ bottom lines.”

NRCS launched MRBI in 2009, focusing on watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin, then took the concept nationwide in 2012 with the launch of NWQI. Since then, according to the NRCS, priority watersheds across the country have seen improvements, including the delisting of once impaired streams.


NRCS states that through these initiatives they offer “technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to implement practices that avoid, control and trap nutrients and sediment, which in high quantities negatively impact water quality.” Practices include filter strips, cover crops and manure management, which promote soil health, reduce erosion and lessen nutrient runoff.

NRCS is coming into its fiscal 2020 with a strengthened focus on watershed assessment and partner engagement in priority small watersheds. NRCS will soon solicit state partners for new MRBI and NWQI watersheds and source water protection areas for fiscal 2021. See NRCS website for a list of the watersheds for MRBI and for NWQI.

Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative

This year, NRCS will make available $17.5 million to producers in 13 states: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

MRBI supports each state’s nutrient loss reduction strategy with overall goals of improving water quality, restoring wetlands and enhancing wildlife habitat while ensuring economic viability of agricultural lands along the nation’s largest river. The nation’s largest hypoxic zone, or low-oxygen area, sits at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Since its launch, MRBI has:

  • Helped producers implement conservation on nearly 1.5 million acres
  • Reduced sediment loss by 2.1 million tons
  • Reduced phosphorous loss by 4.1 million pounds
  • Reduced nitrogen loss by 16 million pounds.

National Water Quality Initiative

Additionally, NRCS will make available $38.9 million this year through NWQI. The Initiative is a partnership among NRCS, state water quality agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify and address impaired water bodies through voluntary conservation. Through the Initiative, NRCS provides targeted funding for financial and technical assistance in small watersheds most in need and where farmers can use conservation practices to address impaired surface water. In 2019, NWQI was expanded to include protection of both surface and ground sources of drinking water.

Water quality is improving in NWQI watersheds. State water quality agency partners report that 27 percent of NWQI monitoring watersheds show an improvement in water quality in at least one of the NWQI-monitored pollutants (based on 2016 data). Further, 81 percent of these improvements can be attributed to or associated with agricultural conservation practices implemented by farmers and ranchers.

Since its launch, NWQI has:

  • Helped producers implement conservation on 825,000 acres
  • Reduced sediment loss by 850,000 tons
  • Reduced phosphorous loss by 2 million pounds
  • Reduced nitrogen loss by 9.6 million pounds

Participating in MRBI and NWQI

NRCS accepts applications for conservation programs year-round, but applications are ranked and funded by enrolment periods that are set locally. Producers interested in technical and financial assistance should contact their local NRCS field office.

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