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Overcoming Barriers to USDA’s New Conservation Program

For more than 30 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has worked to reduce water pollution by offering farmers throughout the nation financial and technical help to put conservation measures in place. While these efforts have successfully addressed environmental problems at the individual farm level—such as soil erosion—agriculture remains a key source of water pollution in the United States.

However, it’s really only a small portion of farms that generate the majority of agriculture’s contribution to U.S. water pollution. New research shows that targeting conservation funds to these farms with the most potential to reduce pollution could be up to 12 times more cost effective than the usual practice of disbursing funds widely. And encouragingly, a new USDA program aims to capitalize on a similar targeted approach.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) will use a partnership-based, targeted watershed project approach to improve water quality, soil, and wildlife habitat on a regional scale and prioritize cost-effective activities for doing so. RCPP holds great potential for strategically targeting conservation resources to clean up impaired rivers, lakes, streams and bays, benefiting not just farmers, but also entire communities and ecosystems sharing the same watershed. As a new program, this targeted approach may be challenging to execute, but WRI’s new paper, Improving Water Quality: Overcoming Barriers to Better Targeting of U.S. Farm Conservation Funds, offers some strategies for success.

Major Barriers to Targeting

We found targeted approaches to conservation, such as those being proposed by RCPP, can face three major barriers:

  1. Scientific and technical: The information required to determine where to allocate funds and find out if they’re getting results may not be easily obtainable. Monitoring water quality can be expensive, labor-intensive and technically tough, and computer models are limited.

  2. Social and political: Focusing conservation funds on specific spots means others may get less than they have in the past, which makes it hard to get widespread Congressional and stakeholder support and could delay decision-making.

  3. Institutional and implementation: Targeting is a relatively new way of managing conservation, requiring additional resources to identify priority areas and more local staff to recruit participants.

RCPP’s Promising Approach

RCPP has already overcome one of the biggest obstacles to targeting—social and political pushback from the “carve out” of conservation funds for particular areas. Due to the nature of conservation programs historically, some politicians, states, and others continue to expect a broad distribution of funding. RCPP has struck a balance between offering funds to all farmers and just to farmers in regions where funds will do the most good. RCPP has set aside 35 percent of its funds for applicants in what it calls “critical conservation areas,” with the remaining funds available across the country and within each state. The use of these critical conservation areas—regions that would benefit from water quality (or quantity) improvement—will promote implementation of conservation practices to address the most important, large-scale, and even multi-state environmental problems.

RCPP is also poised to combat farmer reluctance, which has been a bane to some targeted conservation efforts. Most federal conservation programs attract more applicants than federal funds can pay for. But when targeting programs only serve limited areas with a smaller pool of farmers, interest may lag and some simply cannot be attracted to the program. However, RCPP requires implementing partner organizations—who apply for the funding and then work with farmers to apply conservation practices—to describe their history working with farmers, outline plans for engaging farmers, and estimate anticipated participation rates. By awarding funding to partners with track records of success, RCPP’s targeted projects will be well-positioned to get enough farmers to join to achieve the program’s objectives.

Strengthening RCPP

However, USDA could do more to make RCPP stronger.

USDA and partners will have to shift how success is measured from tracking numbers of contracts signed to measuring actual environmental outcomes—such as improved water and soil quality. Typically, this information is obtained through direct measurement and/or modeling, and these techniques can be technically challenging and resource intensive. USDA and other stakeholders could consider transferring existing site-specific tools to other regions, advancing modeling capabilities to streamline pollution simulation methods, and sharing data and information among institutions.

To make this shift toward being more outcome-oriented, RCPP may require increased capacity and skills, as well as a change in agency culture. Strong leaders who believe in the targeted approach can help with this cultural change. They can also help build institutional capacity through appropriate staffing, skills and tools to implement the program.

USDA and its partners should keep exploring potential barriers to implementing RCPP to cost-effectively get the most environmental benefit from this new program.

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