‘Farm Bill’ program would benefit water quality, partnerships

Large algal blooms resulting from nutrient pollution have threatened water quality throughout the United States.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate last week would strengthen a Farm Bill program that allows water and wastewater utilities to partner with local farmers on conservation projects that benefit regional water quality and quantity.

Sponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program Improvement Act (S. 1966) would build on USDA’s existing Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which was established with AMWA’s support as part of the 2014 Farm Bill. The RCPP allows water utility managers and other stakeholders to partner with local agricultural producers on projects that achieve one of several environmental objectives, such as improved water quality and quantity, reduction of nutrient flows, habitat conservation and improvements to air quality and irrigation systems.

With excess nutrients impacting water quality nationwide, water groups such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA) are urging Congress to use the Farm Bill reauthorization to help farmers and water utilities work together to protect the nation’s drinking water.

Large algal blooms resulting from nutrients have threatened water quality throughout the country, including shutting down the drinking water supply for the entire city of Toledo, Ohio, in 2014.

“Water utilities and farmers are eager to collaborate on projects that protect public health and the environment, reduce the cost of water treatment and help farmers succeed,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA executive director of government affairs. “Our nation’s farmers do heroic work to put food on the tables of Americans every day. There’s an opportunity through the Farm Bill to encourage partnerships that allow them to meet their production goals while protecting our nation’s drinking water.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides funding to encourage implementing conservation practices on agricultural land. While these programs have been effective at addressing a host of environmental issues, historically they have been under-utilized in tackling drinking water concerns. AWWA is advocating that the reauthorized Farm Bill:

  • Provide robust overall funding for the conservation title.
  • Emphasize protecting water to safeguard public health.
  • Expand opportunities for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to work with water systems to prioritize activities in each state.
  • Increase benefits for farmers who employ practices that benefit downstream water quality.
  • Ensure at least 10 percent of conservation program funds, Title 2 in the Farm Bill, is focused on the protection of drinking water.

“As we work to complete a new Farm Bill in the coming year, we need to identify and provide financial and technical resources to landowners and land managers to protect and conserve our natural resources,” said John Larson, Senior Vice President of Policy and Programs at American Farmland Trust. “Collaboration with the American Water Works Association to identify opportunities for farmers and ranchers to protect drinking water for communities helps to build a larger coalition of supporters for conservation and the Farm Bill.”

Innovative water utilities are already partnering with farming operations to protect their water supplies using programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). In Northwest Arkansas, an alliance of agricultural, water and environmental stakeholders received $4.3 million from NRCS and provided another $4.3 million in local and state contributions – both cash and in-kind – to rehabilitate a river and implement on-farm conservation practices.

“The Farm Bill currently provides the best opportunity to bring significant resources to the table to protect drinking water,” said Alan Fortenberry, CEO of Beaver Water District, Ark., a key leader in the Arkansas alliance.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the utility is working with 15 partners – including the Iowa Soybean Association – to adopt practices that protect the city’s water supply. The partners are contributing $2.3 million in technical and financial assistance and the NRCS is providing another $2.1 million.

AWWA, the largest association of water professionals in the world, is sharing case studies that highlight agriculture-utility collaborations through its publications, conferences and other learning opportunities. The Farm Bill work – and the broader issue of protecting water supplies – will be among the key issues AWWA members bring to Capitol Hill next spring during the 2018 Water Matters! Fly In.

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