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Improving Water Quality (3 of 3)

Overcoming Barriers to Better Targeting of U.S. Farm Conservation Funds

This issue brief identifies the technical, political, and implementation challenges of cost-effectively targeting agricultural conservation funds to achieve greater improvements in water quality and suggests options for addressing these challenges.

This publication is the third in a 3-part series, Improving Water Quality, on better targeting of U.S. farm conservation funds to improve water quality.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides over $5 billion annually in financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to implement conservation practices that address resource concerns (e.g., water quality, wildlife habitat on individual farms (Stubbs 2013). Conservation programs, like USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), have been beneficial for many producers, but they have not historically focused on addressing resource concerns beyond farm boundaries or maximizing cost effectiveness (i.e., environmental benefits per dollar spent). Since agriculture is a primary source of nutrient and sediment impairments in U.S. waterbodies (Hall et al. 2012) and conservation program budgets are limited, better targeting of funds could create federal conservation programs that are more results oriented and can help to strategically clean up waterbodies with nutrient impairments due to agriculture.

In this paper, WRI defines targeting of conservation payments as identifying high priority land—such as regions or watersheds—for implementing conservation and within those areas, selecting specific acres and practices that are cost effective. Currently, targeting efforts are limited.1 In an effort to ascertain why targeting is not more prevalent within USDA and how to make better use of it to accelerate water quality improvements through reductions in agricultural nutrient pollution, this paper identifies some of the major barriers to targeting federal agricultural conservation funds. In addition, this paper suggests options for USDA and other institutions to overcome these barriers in order to more effectively use federal funds to solve the country’s most pressing water quality concerns related to agriculture. WRI identified barriers to targeting by reviewing USDA’s past and current targeting efforts; reviewing scientific, political, and economic literature on landscape-scale watershed management; and interviewing targeting program managers, project partners, and other professionals.

WRI identified three major types of barriers: (1) scientific and technical, (2) social and political, and (3) institutional and implementation.

Scientific and Technical Barriers

Information on various spatial and temporal scales is critical for determining where to target funds and for assessing progress. Typically, this information is obtained through direct measurement and/or modeling, and both of these techniques can be technically challenging and resource intensive.

USDA and other stakeholders could consider transferring site-specific tools to other regions; advancing modeling capabilities to streamline pollution estimation methods; and sharing data and information among institutions to learn from past and current targeting efforts, identify data and tool gaps, and advance the collective state of knowledge on targeting.

Social and Political Barriers

Some politicians continue to expect a broad distribution of conservation funding in the belief that because geographic targeting can favor some states or districts over others, their constituents may have reduced access to targeted program payments. Stakeholder groups may also have competing interests with regard to how funds are spent. USDA and other stakeholders could develop an educational campaign to change perceptions and gain more public support for targeting, focus on costs and benefits to maximize environmental benefits per dollar spent, and require minimum environmental stewardship from producers applying for targeted funds that would otherwise prioritize “bad actors.”

Institutional and Implementation Barriers

Even with the necessary data, targeting tools, and political and stakeholder support, institutional barriers at the agency and conservation district level can hinder program implementation. District conservation staff may have to turn some producers away if their farms are not in priority areas or if they cannot cost-effectively generate environmental benefits. Targeting also requires new and increased conservationist capacity to identify priority areas and producers and to track environmental outcomes achieved. Furthermore, recruiting the right participants can be challenging because focusing conservation efforts in select areas means that the pool of potential participants is limited.

Options for overcoming these barriers include strengthening USDA program leadership and oversight to create a more results-oriented agency culture, involving producers and the local community in watershed planning efforts, and creating a collaborative network of experts and funders who can join forces to affect change.

While the barriers to targeting will be challenging to overcome, they are not insurmountable. Some options for increasing and improving targeting efforts may be relatively easy to adopt in the near future, requiring minimal investments. These options include increasing collaboration among agencies and institutions involved in targeting, aiming to maximize environmental benefits per dollar spent, and selecting project recruits who can earn the interest and trust of fellow producers. Other solutions may require years of time and money. The recommendations presented in this paper are options for consideration and may come with their own set of barriers, so they should be evaluated for their potential benefits, drawbacks, and feasibility. Exploring these options in greater detail will help USDA and other institutions involved in targeting use conservation funds to cost-effectively maximize environmental benefits.

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