USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP): An Opportunity for Agriculture

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

On behalf of AGree, I would like to congratulate the recipients of the 115 USDA RCPP grants that Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on January 14. These projects, which will leverage nearly $800 million to support agricultural conservation across the country, demonstrate the leadership of the partners involved and have strong potential to move us toward a future where landscape stewardship, long-term productivity, and the prosperity of farming communities are aligned.

Many of the projects are designed around an emerging vision for collaborative conservation built on partnerships across sectors, organized at a landscape or watershed scale, and accountable for measureable improvements in conservation outcomes. This is a vision AGree shares, and we are working to make it a reality on the ground through our Working Landscapes Initiative and Working Lands Conservation Partnership approach.

The projects selected for funding through RCPP point to a future in which voluntary conservation of working landscapes is a collective responsibility that landowners, producers, water utilities, the supply chain, government, and civil society groups share. We note that many of the projects have been organized by and awarded to state agencies, municipalities, and conservation organizations. These organizations are to be commended for taking the initiative to organize RCPP projects. It is our hope that over time, agricultural groups and organizations will take the lead in establishing and implementing these kinds of projects. Through RCPP, agriculture can respond to funding opportunities and engage in watershed-based approaches to agricultural conservation that are good for long term productivity, operational profitability, and achievement of soil health, water quality, nutrient management, and wildlife habitat.

In Iowa, two very different possible futures are coming into focus. In one, the City of Cedar Rapids collaborating with farmers to improve water quality and flood management through the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which is supported by an RCPP grant. Municipal representatives will work with farmers to implement best management practices, including planting cover crops, establishing wetlands, saturated buffer strips and bioreactors, and engaging in nutrient management techniques. Working together, partners hope to reduce the concentrations of nitrates in the water supply and extreme flooding events in the Cedar River.

In the other, the Des Moines Water Works recently filed intent to sue three counties upstream of its drinking water supply under the Clean Water Act. Water quality in the Raccoon River, which provides drinking water for Des Moines’ 500,000 residents, has declined due to nitrate runoff in part from Iowa’s agricultural operations. If the lawsuit proceeds, Des Moines will seek to require farms in the Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties to undergo the same federal permitting process as point sources facilities.

We in agriculture have a choice to make about which future we want. Working with one another as producers and landowners, and with other partners, on cooperative conservation efforts such as those involved in RCPP projects is a very positive choice. AGree looks forward to collaborating with diverse partners to secure a future rooted in voluntary farmer and rancher leadership and stewardship.

Jim Moseley is an Indiana farmer, past Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and AGree Co-Chair.