WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will invest $41 million in a 3-year initiative to support the work of farmers in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB). The initiative helps farmers and ranchers implement science-based conservation measures to reduce runoff from farms entering the region’s waterways.
NRCS Chief Jason Weller unveiled the initiative today at an event with partners and stakeholders from the region at Maumee Bay State Park in Toledo, Ohio. This initiative will expand conservation and financial assistance opportunities available to WLEB farmers and ranchers who want to take additional steps to improve the quality of the water feeding the Lake. This funding is in addition to the $36 million the Agency has already planned to make available in the basin through the 2014 Farm Bill, for a combined three-year investment of $77 million to improve water quality and support sustainable production in the Basin.
“The challenges that face Lake Erie require science-based solutions and a commitment from all partners to address the factors that impact water quality. The area’s farmers and ranchers have already made great strides in helping to reduce runoff, and with this new investment they will be able to do even more,” said Vilsack. “Farmers and landowners will be able to add conservation measures to about 870,000 acres in this critical watershed, effectively doubling the acres of conservation treatment that can be accomplished in the three years.”
Since 2009, NRCS has invested about $73 million in technical and financial assistance to farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin through Farm Bill Programs. The conservation improvements they have made through more than 2,000 conservation contracts now cover more than 580,000 acres.
Farmers and landowners in the region have stepped up, and with their help the conservation practices these funds supported reduced annual nutrient and sediment losses by an estimated 7 million pounds of nitrogen, 1.2 million pounds of phosphorous, and 488,000 tons of sediment between 2009 and 2014. These savings have resulted in cleaner water leaving farmlands in the Basin.
NRCS also today released a new report through its Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) that evaluates the impacts of voluntary conservation in the WLEB and conservation treatment needs. The report, based on farmer survey data in the WLEB, shows voluntary conservation is making significant headway in reducing nutrient and sediment loss from farms, but there is opportunity to improve conservation management across the basin and no single conservation solution will meet the needs of each field and farm.
According to the report, this initiative will help landowners reduce phosphorus runoff from farms by more than 640,000 pounds each year and reduce sediment loss by over 260,000 tons over the course of the three-year investment.
“Throughout the basin, comprehensive field-scale conservation planning and conservation systems are needed to accommodate different treatment needs while maintaining productivity,” said Chief Weller. “While voluntary conservation is making a difference in the basin, the CEAP evaluation tells us that there are still gains that can be made through an emphasis on practices like precision agriculture.”
The WLEB Initiative is one of the key results of a series of partner workshops NRCS held in fall 2015 to develop recommendations for accelerating conservation in the Basin. The initiative further sharpens the focus of NRCS investments and helps increase the impact of ongoing work by conservation groups and state and local governments. This partnership will work with data from the CEAP Report and other sources along with the recommendations of farmers and other conservation partners to match the right conservation solution to the unique qualities of each field to maximize the impact of each dollar invested.
Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $29 billion to help producers make conservation improvements, working with as many as 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect over 400 million acres nationwide, boosting soil and air quality, cleaning and conserving water and enhancing wildlife habitat. For an interactive look at USDA's work in conservation and forestry over the course of this Administration, visit https://medium.com/usda-
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