Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will invest $41 million in a three-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 March 29 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, bringing the combined three-year investment to $77 million to improve water quality and support sustainable production in the WLEB.
"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," Vilsack said. "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 WLEB through farm bill programs. The conservation improvements 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 lb. of nitrogen, 1.2 million lb. 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 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 basin, shows that voluntary conservation is making significant headway in reducing nutrient and sediment loss from farms in the WLEB but notes that 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 CEAP report, this initiative will help landowners reduce phosphorus runoff from farms by more than 640,000 lb. each year and reduce sediment loss by more than 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," Weller said. "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."