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USDA seeks proposals to improve Mississippi River basin water quality

From the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

-- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking project proposals that will improve water quality and the overall health of the Mississippi River in 41 eligible watersheds in 12 states, including Arkansas.

The watersheds in Arkansas are Lake Conway-Point Remove, L'Anguille, Cache, Lower St. Francis, Bayou Macon, Boeuf River and Little River Ditches watersheds.

"USDA is committed to improving the overall water quality in the Mississippi River Basin and this initiative is a significant step toward achieving that goal," Vilsack said. "We need the help of agricultural producers, organizations, Indian tribes, and state and local agencies to achieve maximum results from this initiative."

The Request for Proposals for the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, through which up to $75 million will be available for partnership projects, was published in the Federal Register the week of March 15. Proposals are due by May 1. The RFP explains the procedures for potential partners to sign agreements with USDA for projects that meet with the initiative's objectives.

"This initiative is designed to improve the health of the Mississippi River Basin by working with partners to help producers voluntarily implement conservation practices which can avoid, control, and trap nutrient run off," said Mike Sullivan, Arkansas state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. "This is an excellent opportunity for conservation organizations to develop projects that can be implemented on the watershed level. This partnership approach allows diverse organizations to work together to address water quality issues."

"The proposals should use a systems approach to achieve conservation goals," Sullivan said.

A systems approach addresses nutrient runoff from multiple perspectives: avoid excess application of nutrients on fields; control the amount of nutrient runoff from fields into the watershed; and trap nutrients before they leave the field.

"Once a project is funded, applications from landowners that achieve conservation goals through a systems approach will be given higher consideration in the ranking process," Sullivan said.

The initiative has huge potential for fish and wildlife when the systems approach is used to develop proposals, according to AGFC private lands coordinator David Long. “To help solve these water quality problems, any proposal can include fish and wildlife habitat, which is a listed objective of the initiative,” Long said. “And under the systems approach, addressing fish and wildlife habitat in conservation practices, will strengthen any Arkansas proposal for funding,” he added.

Long says that an average of 436,000 tons of sediment each day going down the Mississippi River, along with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from the 12 states. “Improving water quality in these Arkansas watersheds can go a long way to reducing our share of pollutants along with improving habitat for fish and wildlife in the select watersheds approved for funding,” he explained.

Long noted that many conservation practices such as buffers, cover crops, grassed waterways and filter strips, can include wildlife beneficial plantings to filter run-off and at the same time provide habitat. “These are but a few examples how proposals can include wildlife objectives and strengthen the chance for approval. We will be working with USDA and other partners to integrate fish and wildlife benefits into proposals to get the biggest benefits from these millions of dollars in conservation funding,” he said.

Federally recognized Indian tribes, state and local units of governments, farmer cooperatives, producer associations, institutions of higher education and other non-governmental organizations can download the RFP at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/mrbi/mrbi.html. The RFP contains a list of the eligible watersheds.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service will administer this initiative, first announced on Sept. 24, 2009.

Forty-one eligible watersheds or focus areas in 12 states--Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin--were selected to participate in this initiative. Smaller watersheds within the initial 41 will be selected for approved partnership projects based on their potential for managing nitrogen and phosphorus-nutrients associated with impaired water quality in the Mississippi River Basin-while maintaining agricultural productivity and benefiting wildlife. Individual producers can only participate in this initiative in approved partnership projects.

USDA will use a competitive process to distribute up to $75 million using two conservation programs in fiscal year 2010, the initiative's first year. Up to $50 million will come from the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative and an additional $25 million from the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. USDA expects to provide about $320 million in financial assistance over four years for voluntary conservation projects in these watersheds.

USDA uses CCPI to enter into multi-year agreements with eligible partner organizations to address conservation priorities related to agriculture and non-industrial private forest land. CCPI uses the funding and policies from three conservation programs-Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.

WREP, administered under the Wetlands Reserve Program, is designed to foster coordination with partners and to encourage non-federal investment in natural resource conservation through the use of matching funds and in-kind services.

Producers interested in participating in conservation programs detailed in approved projects must meet the eligibility and funding requirements for the program or programs for which they are applying. Eligible partners must submit separate proposals for CCPI and WREP. Higher priority will be given to projects that integrate both CCPI and WREP.

For more information about the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, including the RFP and the eligible watersheds, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/mrbi/mrbi.html.

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