Water Conservation: From the Farm Bill to Your Local Water Table

Opening the Floodgates of Federal Funding

On January 14th, 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) awarded more than $372 million in federal funds to over 115 conservation projects in the United States. Over the next five years, the USDA expects to make $1.2 billion in federal funding available through this initiative for conservation projects. The awards are all part of a new initiative known as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack calls “an entirely new approach to conservation.”

Congress authorized the Regional Conservation Partnership Program in its comprehensive 2014 Farm Bill. This initiative promotes conservation partnerships between the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (“NRCS”) and organizations, including businesses, universities, Native American tribes, water districts, nonprofits, and more. According to the NRCS’s website for this program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program “combines the authorities of four former conservation programs – the Agricultural Enhancement Program, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program, the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, and the Great Lakes Basin Program.”

In addition to the $372 million in federal funds made available for 2015, participating groups have committed to match another estimated $400 million through in-kind services, manpower, and dollar contributions. These funds will be directed at locally or regionally designed projects that are aimed at improving soil health and water quality by promoting efficient use of water and facilitating increased wildlife habitat. Drawing on his own experience as Iowa’s former governor, USDA Secretary Vilsack believes these partnerships will accelerate conservation efforts because “it’s the local folks who will be able to encourage landowners to participate” in conservation efforts.

Making a Splash: Water Quality and Water Supply

In the context of water conservation, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program will fund projects aimed at restoring or sustaining clean and abundant water.

One of the ways this initiative seeks to restore clean and abundant water is through projects aimed at multi-state and national projects. For example, Vermont and New York will receive $16 million to implement farming practices designed to benefit the Lake Champlain watershed and improve water quality. Specifically, the Lake Champlain project is aimed at improving water quality through a variety of innovative measures, “including the use of modeling to target conservation practices for optimal environmental benefits, an extensive monitoring network to assess conservation effectiveness, sliding scale cost-share to gain the support of farmers, and an incentive-based Environmental Stewardship Program to provide some certainty to producers that will get credit for the conservation practices they apply.” Additionally, Ducks Unlimited is spearheading a project aimed at involving rice producers located in Mississippi, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas in water conservation. Specifically, this $10 million conservation project is designed to assist rice producers in addressing water quantity, water quality, and wildlife habitat concerns throughout these states.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program also targeted several critical watersheds for increased water conservation efforts, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the Great Lakes Region, as well as the Mississippi, Colorado, and Columbia River Basins. Conservation projects funded under this initiative address both watershed- and region-specific concerns, demonstrating the flexibility this initiative provides in addressing unique concerns.

For example, in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the Mississippi River Basin, and the Great Lakes Region, some of the selected water conservation projects will address ways to reduce fertilizer runoff from dairy and livestock operations, and are thus focused on water quality. Conversely, in the Colorado River Basin, one of the selected water conservation projects seeks to modernize agricultural water management in its lower Gunnison River Basin, and is thus focused on water quantity. While these water conservation plans differ in their emphasis on either water quality or water quantity, both water conservation motives rely on planning by local organizations and stakeholders to determine how to best direct federal water conservation funding.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program will also provide funding to state-level projects, receiving roughly 25 percent of the remaining federal funds under this initiative. For example, in Idaho, the Blackfoot River Conservation Partnership, spearheaded by Trout Unlimited, will use funding under the initiative to restore fish habitat, augment in-stream flows, and improve water quality throughout the Blackfoot drainage, all located within that state’s boundary.

A Watershed Moment

By focusing water conservation efforts at a regional or watershed scale while simultaneously brokering public-private partnerships, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program represents the evolution in how this nation addresses water issues and tackles conservation. While water conservation efforts have certainly been undertaken in the past, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program breaks away from the historical “random acts of conservation” approach to create an inspiring water conservation strategy that leverages federal funding with local know-how. By recognizing the role farmers and ranchers play as stewards of this nation’s water, this public-private strategy will accelerate the flow of water conservation in the United States and truly represents a watershed moment for water conservation.


The title image features Lake Champlain in New York and Vermont. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and the owner does not endorse this blog.



John Flesher, $372.5M in Federal Funds Awarded to Conservation Projects, Washington Times, Jan. 14, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/14/340m-in-federal-funds-awarded-to-conservation-proj.

Brad Haire, New Widespread Federal Program to Focus Conservation Efforts at the Local Level, Southeast Farm Press, Jan. 14, 2015, http://southeastfarmpress.com/government/new-widespread-federal-program-focus-conservation-efforts-local-level.

Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Regional Conservation Partnership Program, http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/farmbill/rcpp/ (last visited Feb. 13, 2015).

Timothy Cama, USDA Launches Water Conservation Program, The Hill, May 24, 2014, http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/207312-usda-launches-water-conservation-program.

Heather Layman, Regional Conservation Partnership Program Awards Announced, The Nature Conservancy, Jan. 14, 2015, http://www.nature.org/newsfeatures/pressreleases/regional-conservation-partnership-program-awards-announced.xml.