USDA: Colorado River Basin designated Critical Conservation Area #ColoradoRiver

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

Here’s the release from the USDA:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today joined Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow to launch a new era in American conservation efforts with an historic focus on public-private partnership. Vilsack made the announcement in Bay City, Mich., which sits at the heart of the Saginaw Bay watershed in the center of the Great Lakes region, an area where agriculture is a leading industry.

Vilsack also praised Senator Stabenow for her leadership as Agriculture Committee Chair to improve conservation programs in Michigan and across the nation, and acknowledged her work to craft and secure passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, which authorized USDA to create the new conservation program.

“This is an entirely new approach to conservation,” said Vilsack. “We’re giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in what are essentially clean water start-up operations. By establishing new public-private partnerships, we can have an impact that’s well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own. These efforts keep our land resilient and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism and outdoor recreation, and other industries.”

Along the Saginaw Bay, intensive agricultural production, industrial pollution and other factors have created a need for enhanced water quality efforts. The new conservation program announced today, called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), will benefit similar areas across the nation. RCPP streamlines conservation efforts by combining four programs (the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion) into one.

The RCPP will competitively award funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives. With participating partners investing along with the Department, USDA’s $1.2 billion in funding over the life of the five-year program can leverage an additional $1.2 billion from partners for a total of $2.4 billion for conservation. $400 million in USDA funding is available in the first year. Through RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat, and other related natural resources on private lands.

This is an example of government at its best—streamlining multiple programs into one more effective effort, providing flexible tools, and connecting local citizens and organizations with resources that best address their priorities, protect and improve their quality of life, and propel economic growth.

In addition to supporting local conservation goals, clean land and water investments create jobs in local communities. Conservation work involves building and maintaining infrastructure—building terraces in fields or restoring wetlands, which requires the hiring of contractors, engineers, scientists, and others. A 2013 study commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation estimates that last year, conservation activities supported more than 660,000 jobs.

Conservation also provides an economic boost by spurring local tourism. Cleaner water and enhanced wildlife habitat provide additional opportunities for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. The outdoor recreation economy supports 6.1 million direct jobs, $80 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue, and $646 billion in spending each year.

The RCPP has three funding pools:
35 percent of total program funding directed to critical conservation areas, chosen by the agriculture secretary;
40 percent directed to regional or multi-state projects through a national competitive process; and
25 percent directed to state-level projects through a competitive process established by NRCS state leaders.

The critical conservation areas Secretary Vilsack announced today are: the Great Lakes Region, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Mississippi River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta, Prairie Grasslands, and the Colorado River Basin [ed. emphasis mine].

USDA is now accepting proposals for this program. Pre-proposals are due July 14, and full proposals are due September 26. For more information on applying, visit the announcement for program funding.

To learn about technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit or local USDA service center. For more on the 2014 Farm Bill, visit

From The Durango Herald (Mary Bowerman):

The Colorado River basin is being listed as a critical conservation area under a new multi-billion dollar program that will fund conservation and soil-protection efforts, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday.

The new measure, called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, facilitates public-private partnerships – a structure in which nonprofits, universities and local and tribal governments, among others, can apply for grant money to work with producers like the agricultural sector in implementing innovative environmental protection plans.

The Department of Agriculture will invest $1.2 billion over the five-year length of the farm bill, while participants will match those funds. With an expected $400 million in funding available during the first year, 35 percent of the total funding will go to eight critical areas, including the Colorado River basin, that covers parts of seven “basin” states and provides water for 30 million people.

That means the Animas River, a tributary of the San Juan River and part of the Colorado River basin, could see funding under the designation efforts.

“We have more and more pressure on the water supply,” said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango. “We’re hoping this will provide incentives for people to implement some conservation practices that will help meet the demands on Colorado River basin.”

With Colorado’s growing population coupled with drought, the river basin has been strapped to meet agricultural and recreational demands.

In early May, Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and Rep. Scott Tipton pushed for the river basin to be designated a critical conservation area.

Here’s a release “Tipton, Bennet, Udall Welcome USDA’s Conservation Designation for Colorado River Basin” from US Representative Scott Tipton’s office:

U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and U.S. Representative Scott Tipton today welcomed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s announcement that the Colorado River Basin is being designated a Critical Conservation Area (CCA) under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

The announcement follows a request from the lawmakers to make the designation in order to complete critical conservation projects throughout the river basin. Bennet also pressed Secretary Vilsack on the designation at a Senate Agriculture hearing earlier this month.

“The Critical Conservation Area designation for the Colorado River basin will provide resources requested by a broad coalition of regional stakeholders to help manage historic drought conditions and better ensure sustained agriculture production and economic health in the headwaters region,” said Tipton.

“Colorado is the headwaters state and the Colorado River is a precious source of water for not only our state, but also 19 other states downstream,” Bennet said. “With persistent drought conditions and a growing population across the West, the demands on the river are greater than ever. This designation is crucial to moving forward with projects that will help sustain the river for all of its uses into the future.”

“The Colorado River — from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains through to the Pacific Ocean — sustains Colorado and the West. Despite this past winter’s snowfall, the river and every community and industry it touches is at risk due to rising temperatures and persistent drought,” Udall said. “Designating the Colorado River basin as a Critical Conservation Area through provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill, which I strongly supported, will help preserve this iconic waterway — and bolster local efforts to safeguard our water.”

The designation will provide producers in the Colorado River basin with necessary resources and funding to implement conservation projects and increase the sustainability of regional water, soil, wildlife, and related natural resources. In the face of hotter, drier conditions and the state’s growing population, it is becoming increasingly challenging for the river basin to meet agricultural, recreational, and municipal demands.

The designation has the support of the Colorado River District, Mesa County Commissioners, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Denver Water, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Southwest Water Conservation District, and other groups around the state.

The RCPP was created under the new conservation title of the 2014 Farm Bill, which Bennet and Tipton helped craft as respective members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees. Bennet was also a member of the conference committee convened to work out the differences between the Senate and House versions of the Farm Bill, and he is the Chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, which has jurisdiction over the RCPP Program.

From the Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

Authorized with the passage of the farm bill of 2014 in February, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program directs money to boost soil health and bolster water quality in a program that now brings together businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.

In Utah, money could go toward improving riparian habitat along the Jordan River, improving rangelands as a fire suppression management tool, or addressing the aftermath of wildfire destroying a watershed, such as the 2012 Seeley Fire that impacted Emery County’s Huntington Creek…

Vilsack said conservation initiatives go beyond helping the land, the water and wildlife but ultimately put “boots on the ground,” by providing jobs. He noted a 2013 study by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that said conservation projects supported more than 600,000 jobs.

Sean McMahon with The Nature Conservancy joined Vilsack on the conference call and stressed that the new program allows projects to expand from field and farm to a watershed and landscape level.

“This truly is a historic day for conservation,” he said. “It really will usher in new era in terms of public/private partnerships.”

The new program was also hailed by a conservation coalition of sportsmen.

“One of the outstanding fruits of the 2014 Farm Bill is being harvested today,” said Whit Fosburgh of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“The RCPP program, combined with the Conservation Reserve Program, will produce huge benefits throughout the agricultural landscape. It is a chance for sportsmen to step up and engage effectively in the new Farm Bill – and in conservation efforts that will directly benefit important fish and wildlife habitat.”

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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