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4 state projects get share of conservation funding

by Glen Chase | January 17, 2015 at 2:04 a.m.

Four new conservation partnerships in Arkansas are taking advantage of a new federal program that will provide millions of dollars for watershedwide approaches to improve water quality and wildlife habitat.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, created as part of the 2014 Farm Bill, will channel up to $10 million to Arkansas for conservation efforts. The federal funding will be matched by members of the respective partnerships, which include government entities, farmers, private business and nongovernmental organizations.

Michael Sullivan, Arkansas' state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the four proposals that won funding reflect efforts to build on earlier programs that focused more on specific projects, rather than a strategic approach within a watershed.

"The key thing is the targeting. In the past, we would work with individual producers," Sullivan said after a presentation Friday on the grant awards. "It was kind of like they would apply, we would have ranking criteria, and they would get funded. Sometimes it would be viewed as random acts of conservation instead of this more strategic approach."

Among the projects being funded is the six-state Rice Stewardship Partnership -- Sustaining the Future of Rice initiative being led by Ducks Unlimited and the USA Rice Federation. The two groups will use $10 million in federal funds, to be matched by the two groups and about 40 other partners, to help rice farmers in Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri and California implement practices that conserve and improve water and soil quality while protecting waterfowl habitats.

Arkansas, as the nation's largest rice-producing state, is expected to receive the largest share of the funding.

Another Arkansas project, the Bayou Meto-Lower Arkansas Regional Conservation Partnership, will receive $3 million. It will use various federal conservation programs to address water quality degradation, groundwater issues and habitat needs affecting 300,000 acres of irrigated cropland. Partners in this effort include irrigation and conservation districts and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, as well as farmer co-operatives and agricultural businesses.

The Illinois River will benefit from a $1.1 million grant that will be provided to the Growing Conservation in the Illinois River Watershed partnership. The money will be used to address technical issues to deal with excessive sediment, high water temperature, high nutrient levels, and elevated levels of pathogens and chemicals from manure, bio-solids or compost applications on farmland in the watershed.

The Arkansas Little Red River Project will receive $700,000 to improve water quality in Hempstead, Lafayette, Little River and Miller counties while addressing issues such as soil erosion, irrigation water needs and wildlife habitat. The project is sponsored by the Southwest Arkansas Research Conservation and Development Council.

Kirk Hanlin, assistant chief of the Conservation Service, said the Arkansas projects were among 115 approved for funding in all 50 states. The farm bill included about $370 million for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, using about $100 million in new funds and scooping up the difference from existing conservation programs. Hanlin said the program is expected to leverage an additional $400 million in outside funding and in-kind contributions from the partnerships.

In a months-long competition, the agency received about 600 partnership proposals, which it winnowed down to about 200 for further review. The final 115 projects were announced Wednesday by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Hanlin and Sullivan said that said Arkansas conservation groups have been unique in their ability to work together to secure federal help to improve water quality and wildlife habitat through various programs such as the Mississippi River Basin Initiative.

"Arkansas does have history of partnerships that frankly doesn't exist in all states," Hanlin said.

The partnership program involves more than traditional federal, county and state conservation agencies, he said. Environmental groups such as Ducks Unlimited, as well as municipalities and private businesses, are realizing that improved water practices upstream will improve their bottom line by making more water available while reducing treatment costs, he said.

"These projects are a much larger scale. They are looking at a watershed versus a smaller part of landscape," he said.

Dow Brantley, a Lonoke County farmer who is chairman of the USA Rice Federation, agreed that the new program takes a broader view, even as the techniques being used to conserve water are the same as in earlier programs.

The difference, Brantley said, is that more partners are stepping forward, adding more resources to conservation efforts which in turn will benefit both the rice industry and waterfowl in the state.

Business on 01/17/2015

Print Headline: 4 state projects get share of conservation funding


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