USDA Invests New Conservation Funds to Improve Lake Erie Water Quality

In July, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that $2 million in conservation funds will be sent to Ohio to help implement conservation techniques that will help improve water quality. The Secretary said USDA is also partnering with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to expand ?boots-on-the-ground? capacity in the area and will be contributing an additional $1 million in technical assistance which will in turn be leveraged by the NFWF along with other public and private entities.

Earlier this summer, water service in Toledo, Ohio was disrupted by algae blooms in Lake Erie. The new funding is the latest contribution of resources to the Lake Erie watershed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has invested $46 million in the watershed since 2009.

?The voluntary conservation efforts supported by this new funding will help improve water quality in Lake Erie,? Vilsack said. ?Many farmers have consistently stepped up to the plate on efforts to protect our water and we want to provide support and incentives for continued action. Along with these resources, we will be offering technical and financial assistance through our direct relationships with farmers, and by partnering with private and public groups on continuing conservation efforts in the Great Lakes basin.?

The Ohio Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is accepting applications from farmers for resources that will help with the planting of cover crops, which experts agree offer the best protection to prevent soil and nutrient erosion in the next season. The funding will be allocated to the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) to help farmers and partners accelerate water quality conservation activities to benefit Lake Erie. NRCS will be providing up to $2 million in Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds in Ohio for a targeted, one-week signup. This signup will be focused on planting cover crops on vulnerable soils this fall in order to reduce soil and nutrient loss from farm fields.

A number of factors contribute to algae blooms. Warm water, lack of agitation, rainfall and runoff from farms, lawns, and other sources can all contribute to the problem. Members of the scientific community believe that global warming is contributing to earlier blooms, not just in waterways in the United States but elsewhere. Conservation practices such as no-till reduce the amounts of sediment and nutrients in run-off, which is also influenced by the amount of precipitation and the time precipitation occurs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USDA are working together to assist producers in efforts to reduce runoff by planting cover crops, controlling drainage and constructing systems like anaerobic digesters to reduce the amount of untreated effluent entering ditches, streams, rivers and lakes.

In July, NRCS leadership met with more than 100 farmers, agricultural groups and fertilizer dealers in Ohio to talk about the expertise USDA can offer and to spread the word about the best conservation practices for the watershed.

?Farmers understand how recent events may impact them and are motivated to work with us to reduce phosphorus run-off, starting now with the planting of additional cover crops,? NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. ?We created this opportunity for farmers who want to get cover on their fields quickly, and we will continue to create complete nutrient management plans for long-term water quality and sustainability practices.?

Along with its ongoing conservation efforts that have contributed $46 million since 2009, the Great Lakes Basin has also been designated by Vilsack as a critical conservation area, or CCA, in the new 2014 Farm Bill Regional Conservation Partnership Program. That new program will invest $1.2 billion in innovative conservation efforts through partnerships with non-federal entities, which are expected to match the federal investment for a total of $2.4 billion in conservation resources.

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