Over the past six years, USDA has worked with private landowners to implement voluntary conservation practices that conserve and clean the water we drink. USDA support—leveraged with historic outside investments—boosts producer incomes and rewards them for their good work. At the same time, USDA investments have brought high quality water and waste services to rural communities, which are vital to their continued health and economic viability. Examples of results achieved by USDA's investments since 2009 to improve water quality and availability include:
- As a result of record enrollment of private working lands in conservation programs over the past six years, nitrogen in runoff from farm fields has been reduced by over 3.5 billion pounds, or nearly 600 million pounds per year. Phosphorus runoff has been reduced by over 700 million pounds since 2009.
- Brought clean drinking water and better waste water management to 14.5 million rural residents through 7,000 loans and grants for water and waste water community infrastructure projects. Quality water and waste services not only help ensure rural places have access to clean water, but also support jobs and help communities retain and attract new businesses and families. USDA investments in water and waste water projects have helped to create or save approximately 150,000 jobs in rural communities.
- Leveraged partner investments through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to put further resources toward projects that foster water conservation and resilience. In the first round of RCPP funding last year, USDA delivered more than $370 million to 115 high-impact conservation projects across all 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Water quality was the most common project objective, ranging from locally-focused efforts to help producers meet water quality regulations to watershed-scale efforts to drive tangible improvement in major water bodies. In May 2015, up to $225 million was made available for a second round of RCPP projects for targeted conservation, with drought and water conservation identified as a priority for potential projects. In more than 60 percent of project pre-proposals received for this next round of funding, partners identified water resource issues as a primary objective.
- Through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), USDA is working with producers to re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat. Nitrogen and phosphorus leaving CRP fields are 95 and 86 percent less, respectively, compared to land that is cropped. Soil erosion has been reduced by an annual average rate of 325 million tons, or 8 billion tons since the program started in 1985. That is equivalent to 480 million dump trucks of soil, enough trucks lined up to reach around the world 128 times.
- Conducted restoration work on 2.9 million acres of Forest Service-managed land in Fiscal Year 2014 that sustained or restored watershed conditions, despite rising costs of firefighting that drain resources from forest restoration and management activities. USDA's Forest Service manages public lands that provide 20 percent of the nation's clean water supply and the drinking water for 60 million Americans, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. To help protect and maintain water quality, the Forest Service's National Best Management Practices (BMP) Program initiated nationally consistent monitoring of the implementation and effectiveness of its National Core BMPs, completing more than 1,100 evaluations on National Forest System lands.
- Quadrupled the number of contracts since 2010 that address water quality concerns in the Mississippi River basin, resulting in the 2014 delisting of two Arkansas stream segments that are downstream of projects in the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI). USDA has worked with more than 600 partners and 5,000 private landowners to improve more than 1 million acres in the basin. Findings from a 2014 report by the USDA's Conservation Effects Assessment Project show that conservation work on cropland in the Mississippi River basin has reduced the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the Gulf of Mexico by 18 and 20 percent, respectively.
- Invested $57 million in the Lake Erie basin to help farmers implement conservation practices that benefit water quality and reduce the amount of nutrients entering the region's watersheds, one of the sources of disruptive algae blooms. Studies indicate that between 2009 and 2014, the new steps farmers have taken with USDA assistance have reduced annual nutrient and sediment losses by approximately 7 million pounds of nitrogen, 1.2 million pounds of phosphorus, and 488,000 tons of sediment in the Lake Erie basin.
- From 2012 to 2014, NRCS has invested more than $1.5 billion to help producers manage acute drought conditions and increase the resilience of their operations against extreme weather events. On average, these producers contribute half the cost of implementing practices. Investments include:
- $638 million to help producers increase irrigation efficiency. Improvements in irrigation can help maintain the long-term viability of the irrigated agriculture sector. Water savings at the farm level can help offset the effect of rising water costs and reduce expenditures for energy, chemicals, and labor inputs, while enhancing revenues through high crop yields and improved crop quality.
- $481 million to implement soil health practices, helping farmers save money and improve their operation's efficiency while at the same time improving the water quality that leaves the fields. Cover crops, no-till and residue management are a few conservation practices that can mitigate impacts of drought. An increase in organic matter is the best outcome – each pound of organic matter can hold up to 20 pounds of water.
- $410 million to help ranchers implement rangeland management practices such as prescribed grazing, watering facilities, forage harvesting and brush management. These practices help ranchers adapt to dry conditions in two main ways—increasing the availability and suitability of forage, and ensuring that cattle have an adequate and reliable source of water.
Additional USDA investments in water quality include:
- Ogallala Aquifer: Invested approximately $72.5 million since 2011 in financial assistance to help more than 1,500 producers conserve water on 325,000 acres in the Ogallala Aquifer. Underlying the Great Plains in eight states, the Ogallala supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States and makes up 30 percent of all groundwater used for irrigation across the country.
- Water Quality Trading: USDA has provided financial and technical assistance to help states and other partners establish water quality trading markets, largely through its Conservation Innovation Grants program. In 2014, the Ohio River Basin water quality trading project announced its first trades between farmers and utilities. In 2015, an additional 6 projects were awarded over $2 million in CIG funding to establish water quality trading opportunities across the country.
- Watershed Dams: USDA helped rural communities maintain local watersheds and reduce the impacts of extreme precipitation and drought by rejuvenating flood control dams. In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, USDA provided more than $324 million to over 800 watershed dam rehabilitation assessments and projects nationwide. USDA's watershed projects across the nation provide an estimated $2.2 billion in annual benefits in reduced flooding and erosion damages, and improved recreation, water supplies and wildlife habitat for an estimated 47 million Americans. USDA recently launched DamWatch, a new web-based application that provides real-time monitoring of rainfall, snowmelt, stream flow and seismic events that could pose potential threats to dam safety. Nearly 12,000 dams in 47 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico help to prevent flooding and erosion damage, provide recreational opportunities, improve water supply and create habitat for wildlife.
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