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September 30, 2009

Vilsack robs Peter to pay Paul to address the hypoxic zone

At the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient task force meeting, Sept 24, 2009, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the release of $320 million to fund a new Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI). The initiative will “fund efforts in 12 states along the 2,350-mile long Mississippi River.” The states are Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The funds will be available over the next four years.

According to the USDA news release, the initiative will be managed by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at USDA. Partner organizations will include state and local agencies and agricultural producers. Partners mentioned in an interview of NRCS chief David White by Frank Holdmeyer, include the Farm Bureau, commodity organizations and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others. These partners will “coordinate their resources in areas requiring the most immediate attention and offer the best returns on the funds invested.” It will be a voluntary program.

Conservation methods that avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff will be implemented by agricultural producers. The initiative will be performance oriented. This means that ”measurable conservation results are required in order to participate.” It will concentrate on 8-digit or smaller watersheds, those that are known to contribute high loads of nutrients into the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Watersheds will be identified by an in-house evaluation process. According to White, each state will select one to three large watersheds of 250,000 to 1.2 million acres and then select a sub-watershed of 10,000 to 40,000 acres for application of the conservation measures. White said that the agency wants proposals by the end of October and plans to select eligible watersheds by late January or early February.

Reading through the releases and statements, it is obvious that this is not new money, but a re-direction of funds from other programs such as the Cooperative Conservation Initiative, Conservation Innovative Grants, and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. It would appear that other funds will be shaved from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program.

My take on the MRBI is that it is a shuffling of the chairs exercise. Since no new funds are allotted, and established programs that have had the benefit of outside comment before establishment are being short-sheeted, the program may well end up as another of those ghost acronyms that float across the political landscape. Consider these issues:

Targeting is not likely: In spite of indications that the projects will be targeted, all 12 states will have participating watersheds. While $320 million is not a small amount of money, when spread over 12 states and four years, only about $6.6 million per state, before administrative costs, will be available each year. Unfortunately, peanut buttering is the typical outcome of watershed programs and ensures they will be limited in scope. Consider that about 160 to 165 million acres of corn and soybeans are grown each year (these crops are often planted alternate years and both cause nitrate leaching and erosion). Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois have about 60 million of these acres, or about 38 percent of the total annual row crops, and contribute close to 40 to 50 percent of the nitrate runoff, yet may receive only about 25 percent of the funds.

Measuring Performance: The initiative appears to call for measurable conservation efforts in order to participate; yet we know that measured outcomes require background monitoring, usually for a decade or more, to account for weather variation and then another decade or more of measurements after the practices have been implemented. In the MRBI, we have a 4-year program and no apparent requirement for monitoring before or after the project. Thus watershed selection will be based on less than perfect criteria and likely performance will not be evaluated. White admitted there are some complicating issues that will have to be worked out such as how to establish good baseline and the lag time between when the conservation practices are applied and measurable results. "It can take from several months to 15 years to see results he noted. But I think we can work through this.”

It's Voluntary: All conservation programs have been voluntary as far as I can recall. The agricultural community lives in fear of regulations that might be binding, and refuses to cooperate unless the program is voluntary. But we know over the years that voluntary has not worked. Again, this assures that little will be gained.

Who will be around to ensure that the expensive conservation practices will be maintained over time, as crop land changes ownership or management? Who will continue the monitoring on a voluntary basis? In the end, the MRBI promises to be another initiative that solves little, creates more work for bureaucrats, and could actually lessen the effectiveness of the excellent programs already underway in NRCS. But it sounds good.

Secretary Vilsack can be thanked for trying something, especially in years of extremely tight budgeting. But I would remind him and others that a lot of money is flowing from Washington to keep the current corn and soybean system intact and expanding. From various crop supports to large biofuel (primarily ethanol) subsidies, many billions are spent each year. Moving $320 million from existing programs to the MRBI seems to me to be a pitifully small token payment toward addressing a key national environmental problem, namely Gulf of Mexico hypoxia.

We will have to do better.

Dennis Keeney


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Jeff Rola

This initiative is just a dusted off version of the Conservation Security Program. With its piecemeal and arbitrary incentive system, CSP effectively killed voluntary conservation with generous funding for a fortunate few and empty atta-boys for those who weren't chosen or didn't make the cut. This is what NRCS calls success.

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