Gulf region gets $328m for restoration

Three-year strategy will help improve water quality and coastal ecosystems following Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment Robert Bonnie announced a new three-year, $328 million restoration strategy to improve water quality and help coastal ecosystems heal following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The strategy will guide how USDA will steer conservation efforts on private lands in priority areas of the Gulf of Mexico region.

As Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, or RESTORE Council, USDA will work in partnership with the five Gulf states, other federal agencies and landowners to explore opportunities for how the funding announced can complement RESTORE Council and other funding from the settlement of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Bonnie announced the strategy Monday from a working forest near Carriere, Miss., where the landowner has worked with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to adopt a variety of conservation practices to improve water quality downstream.

"We're working side by side with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to improve their operations while taking care of natural resources in the region," Bonnie said. "With most of the land in the region privately owned, working lands on the Gulf Coast are pivotal to the region's recovery."

As part of the NRCS Gulf of Mexico Initiative (GoMI), this three-year plan strategically directs existing and anticipated farm bill funds for technical and financial assistance through a variety of farm bill conservation programs to key coastal counties where they can have the best returns. From now through 2018, NRCS will help agricultural producers plan and implement conservation improvements to 3.2 million acres in priority areas that ultimately will result in cleaner water and healthier ecosystems. Assistance is provided through a number of farm bill programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

This targeted strategy focuses on improving and increasing water, restoring coastal ecosystems and leveraging local, state and federal partnerships in more than 200 Gulf-area counties and parishes.

Through an array of voluntary conservation programs, the Gulf of Mexico strategy will provide financial and technical assistance to help producers adopt a number of conservation practices to clean and conserve water, such as managing for nutrients, using no-till practices, planting cover crops and installing grade stabilization and water control structures. These practices trap and control pollutants like sediment and nutrients, reduce erosion and improve water use. NRCS plans to continue these efforts, especially in priority watersheds such as the Fish River in Alabama and Indian Bayou in Louisiana.

By implementing this strategy, modeling from USDA's Conservation Effects Assessment Project shows that voluntary conservation efforts will reduce runoff to the tune of 11 tons of sediment and 2.65 million lb. of nutrients. In coastal Mississippi, targeted efforts led to Orphan Creek's removal from the list of impaired streams, and in Louisiana, two watersheds, Big Creek and East Fork Big Creek, are on track for delisting.

In total, NRCS has worked alongside producers in the five Gulf states to apply conservation practices on more than 84 million acres from 2010, the year of the spill, to 2015. Much of this work occurred in the priority areas targeted by this strategy.

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