California Conservation Investment by NRCS, Farmers and Ranchers Surpasses $200 Million in Federal Fiscal Year 2013

Taylor Hillman General

California’s air, water, soil, wildlife and landscapes all received a healthy boost in federal fiscal year 2013. Over 2400 farmers and ranchers joined with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and partners to voluntarily invest time and money in protecting and restoring natural resources under their care. Each participant worked with NRCS to create a conservation plan to identify and schedule the conservation practices needed to conserve and protect water, soil, air and habitat on the land.

NRCS California invested $102.8 million in working lands conservation programs, and when contributions by farmers and ranchers are included this figure rises to at least $180 million. Additionally NRCS invested over $21.1 million in easement projects that preserve and restore California farmlands, wetlands, grasslands and forests.

“Californians value both their access to diverse, high quality fresh food as well as environmental quality,” says Carlos Suarez, State Conservationist for NRCS in California. “Our role is to help farmers and ranchers achieve and balance both production and conservation goals. By combining Farm Bill funding opportunities with sound conservation planning and technical expertise, we can help producers voluntarily undertake measures that protect the watersheds and natural resources that are shared by everyone,” he said.

NRCS works with farmers and ranchers throughout the state to address resource concerns on individual farms and ranches, but the Agency also targets funds towards focused initiatives. In one such initiativeNRCS invested approximately $15 million in partnered projects conserving and protecting water and wildlife in the Bay-Delta Watershed, a vast ecosystem encompassing nearly 60 percent of the state. The diverse Bay-Delta projects are helping farmers comply with irrigated lands regulations, reduce or eliminate water quality exceedances, improve waterbird habitat for waterfowl and migratory species, and much more.NRCS is now engaged in a two-year Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) survey with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Survey (NASS) to assess the overall effects of these and other conservation practices on the Bay-Delta watershed.

In 2013 NRCS continued its commitment to helping California’s dairy industry remain healthy and sustainable. NRCS worked with producers to invest $7.2 million in manure management plans and structural practices designed to help dairymen continue their efforts to comply with increasingly stringent California state water quality regulations.

California is home to some of the worst air quality in the nation. To help achieve California’s clean air goals, NRCS invested over $19 million in fiscal year 2013–a level nearly matched by participating farmers. Together the farmers and the Agency are recycling old, high-polluting diesel engines and replacing them with systems that run up to 90 percent cleaner. Since 2009, these efforts have reduced oxides of nitrogen emissions, an ozone precursor, by an average of 2,523 tons per year. This is an emissions reduction equivalent to removing 766,000 cars from California highways.

Additionally, NRCS and partners renewed their commitment to protecting imperiled wildlife species throughout the state in 2013. NRCS worked with eastern California ranchers to protect sage grouse; silage farmers in the Central Valley to protect Tricolored Blackbirds; wine grape growers along California’s northern coast to protect steelhead trout; and a wide array of other producers assisting common and impacted species. In addition, NRCS biologists and ranchers in Alameda County worked to protect rangeland ponds lending critical habitat to endangered California Red-legged frogs and California Tiger Salamanders.

Farm Bill programs that invest in working lands on farms and ranches include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), the Conservation Stewardship Program and its predecessor (CStP and CSP), and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP).

Through Farm Bill easement programs such as the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP), the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP), and the Healthy Forest Reserve Program (HFRP), NRCS invested $4.2 million to protect 8 key farmland parcels from development; $1.4 million to protect a grassland that provides sage grouse habitat; and $107,100 on two contracts protecting forestland. Using the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) NRCS spent $15.3 million to purchase four new easements and to implement restoration activities on 28 new and existing WRP sites. These wetlands provide waterfowl and wildlife habitat, improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater, and provide educational and recreational opportunities.

NRCS has provided leadership in a partnership effort to help America’s private landowners and managers conserve their soil, water and other natural resources since 1935.