Monday Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an investment of up to $235 million to improve the nation's water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agricultural viability. The funding is being made available through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the newest conservation tool of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
RCPP, created by the 2014 Farm Bill, empowers local leaders to work with multiple partners—such as private companies, local and tribal governments, universities, non-profit groups and other non-government partners—along with farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners to design solutions that work best for their region. Local partners and the federal government both invest funding and manpower to projects to maximize their impact. This will be the second round of projects funded through RCPP. The RCPP program helps USDA build on already-record enrollment in conservation programs, with over 500,000 producers participating to protect land and water on over 400 million acres nationwide.
"This is a new, innovative approach to conservation," said Vilsack. "This initiative allows local partners the opportunity to design and invest in conservation projects specifically tailored for their communities. These public-private partnerships can have an impact that's well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own. These efforts keep our land and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism, and other industries."
During a press call on the announcement, Vilsack shared that demand during the first round of funding was six times the amount of resources available. He also said the first round of applications offered insight on how to make adjustments to provide some flexibility, especially in critical conservation areas.
Vilsack continued, "We had tremendous interest from local partners when we first launched this program last year. In this new round of applications, we'll be looking for even greater emphasis on expanding partnerships that break down barriers, work across boundaries, leverage resources and create new opportunities for innovation."
Vilsack did warn that the $235 million amount could be subject to sequestration if Congress doesn’t take action later this year and sequestration takes effect Oct. 1. He said the previous rate was 7.5% and he would expect similar, if not higher levels, this year which would leave less than the $235 million available for the RCCP program.
Vilsack made the announcement at a signing ceremony in Denver for the Colorado Pressurized Small Hydropower Partnership Project, a 2015-funded project that focuses on water quantity resource concerns in Colorado. The project, which will receive $1.8 million in NRCS support alongside local partner investments, will facilitate the conversion of flood irrigation systems to more resource-efficient pressurized irrigation systems with integrated hydropower.
"USDA continues to look for new opportunities to address drought across the West. RCPP projects like this one in Colorado highlight the work the NRCS is doing with partners to increase efficiency while supporting production," Vilsack said.
In January, USDA delivered first round funding to 115 high-impact projects, including the Colorado project, across all 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. USDA announced $394 million in awards in the first round of RCPP applications (which represented two years' worth of funding for fiscal years 2014 and 2015).