Great Lakes Clean Water
Great Lakes Clean Water: Realizing the Promise of USDA Conservation Programs
Soil and Water Conservation Society, 2007
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Making What We Have Work Better
New Direction in Farm Policy
The Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) held four roundtable discussions—supported by the Joyce Foundation—in the Great Lakes region that brought together members of the water quality community to discuss how to harness USDA conservation programs more effectively as tools to improve the Great Lakes ecosystem. The roundtable discussions were held (1) May 17, 2006, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, (2) May 18, 2006, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, (3) May 24, 2006, in Saginaw, Michigan, and (4) May 25, 2006, in Toledo, Ohio.
Roundtable participants developed many diverse ideas for improving the performance of USDA conservation programs. This report, however, only deals with those ideas that were accorded high priority in two or more roundtable discussions. Roundtable participants were thoughtful, experienced, enthusiastic, and dedicated to conservation and protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem. Their ideas have great merit for accelerating progress in dealing with agricultural impacts on that ecosystem. The program and policy reform options are, however, solely the responsibility of SWCS.
Roundtable participants focused most of their energy on ideas that could improve water quality conservation efforts right now. Participants felt strongly and often with some frustration that more progress could be made if existing program and authorities were used more effectively. Their ideas for quick improvements are below:
- Accord the Great Lakes a higher priority in water quality protection efforts; drive water quality goals for the Great Lakes upstream into critical watersheds.
- Target programs at critical tributary watersheds with the biggest opportunity to improve the Great Lakes water quality and aquatic ecosystems—use programs to support critical watershed restoration project.
- Create a new funding mechanism to direct conservation program funds to watershed-based projects; multi-year commitment of program funds to projects.
- Focus on key practices and cut through red tape using continuous sign-up for key practices in critical tributary watersheds.
- Support local capacity and leadership to support community-driven, tributary watershed restoration projects.
- Build a stronger network of technical staff and advisors to work with land owners to get conservation on the ground.
- Harmonize standards, performance indicators, eligibility criteria, and regulations among local, state, and federal agencies.
Many participants also wanted to see a new direction in farm support programs—redirecting current crop subsidies and income support programs to programs based on stewardship of natural resources and environmental quality. Their ideas included these suggestions:
- Strengthen and expand conservation compliance provisions—greater focus on water quality.
- Cut funding for crop subsidies and use savings to fund conservation programs.
- Replace crop subsidies with Conservation Security Program (CSP) or another green payments plan.
Farm Bill Opportunities
SWCS analyzed the ideas put forward at the workshop to identify key opportunities in the 2007 farm bill to put workshop participants’ ideas into action. We think the following opportunities hold the most promise.
The most important opportunity to advance roundtable participants’ ideas is to focus more USDA conservation program funding to support the watershed-based water quality restoration projects that emerged as such a high priority in the roundtables. To support these projects, the following options should be considered:
- Mandate that 30% of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds allocated to Great Lakes states be used to support EQIP special projects focused on critical tributary watersheds.
- Strengthen and reauthorize the Partnerships and Cooperation section, mandate that it be fully implemented, and reserve at least 20% of conservation program funds to support the watershed-based cooperative conservation projects.
- Authorize the administration’s Regional Water Enhancement Program and focus the program on water quality and watershed restoration projects.
- Reauthorize and update the Land and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977 to create a collaborative, multi-partner effort to give policy makers the information they need to strategically and effectively direct conservation programs.
- Strengthen the role state technical committees play in guiding the implementation of all USDA conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), EQIP, CSP, and Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).
- Build a stronger technical assistance network, allocate enough Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) funds to support implementation of conservation programs, focus Conservation Innovation grants on building technical capacity and fund at $100 million annually.
- Expand the reach of soil conservation compliance provisions: cover all cropland receiving farm program benefits, make crop insurance subject to compliance provisions, strengthen standards used to determine acceptable rates of soil erosion and require all existing soil conservation compliance plans be updated to meet that new standard, provide for penalties that are graduated to the severity of the violation of the soil conservation compliance provisions, provide CCC funds to support technical assistance to develop and implement plans.
- Make fundamental reforms to CSP to improve its environmental performance and simplify the program for producers and agency staffs as a first step in a transition to a stewardship-based farm support program.