Trout Unlimited saluted USDA Secretary Vilsack’s announcement today that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has chosen its first batch of projects funded by the Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). These projects are a great step forward for trout and salmon conservation efforts on farms, ranches and across the West. Today’s action by the USDA begins on-the-ground implementation of one of the most important parts of the new Farm Bill, signed into law in February 2014.
“We commend Secretary Vilsack, NRCS Chief Jason Weller, and the staff who worked so hard to move forward quickly on implementing the RCPP program,” said Steve Moyer, TU’s vice president for government affairs. “These regional programs will harness like never before the incredible power of conservation-minded farmers, ranchers and foresters with the innovation and can-do spirit of partners such as Trout Unlimited, states, conservation districts and others. It’s a great matchup, and America’s hunters, anglers and outdoor recreationists of all stripes will reap the rewards.”
The demand for this work is great. Drought conditions threaten many producers for whom water supplies are already under intense pressure. Aging irrigation infrastructure has reached epidemic levels throughout the West, and the cost of retrofitting this infrastructure often exceeds the capacity of individual operators or even organized irrigation districts. In the Midwest and East, farmers are grappling with ways to keep sediment and nutrients out of streams in order to improve water quality and fisheries in downstream bays, lakes and rivers.
Despite their benefits, Farm Bill conservation projects have sometimes been too scattered and limited in scope to provide substantial long-term benefits on a larger watershed or basin scale. The last two Farm Bills, in 2002 and 2008, began modest efforts to address this challenge by encouraging landowners and partners to work together on broader scales.
Trout Unlimited has long advocated for, and worked hard to achieve, landscape-scale solutions for the many challenges facing America’s fisheries and watersheds. This focused approach requires coordinating funding, science and partnership work—involving landowners and conservationists—on priority areas to achieve robust fish habitat improvements.
Secretary Vilsack announced that NRCS will fund 114 RCPP projects across the nation. TU was delighted to have four of its projects selected for funding. NRCS will spend $1.2 billion over the next five years, including $400 million the first year, and raise an equal amount from partners. TU projects were funded in these strategic watershed basins in the West:
Upper Columbia River Basin, WA:
The Columbia River Basin has been an epicenter for salmon and steelhead recovery efforts for decades, and ranchers and farmers are a big part of numerous locally based success stories. On-the-ground innovation in Washington is occurring every year in terms of water conservation and removing fish passage barriers to benefit Endangered Species Act-listed fish. The $1.9 million in RCPP funds leverages other state, federal and local funding to build, modernize and enhance irrigation efficiency improvements with large irrigators and irrigation districts in three basins (Entiat, Wenatchee and Methow) in the Upper Columbia. These projects will increase flows in tributaries that provide critical spawning, rearing, migration, and refugia habitat for ESA-listed salmonids.
“This funding will allow TU to work with long-time partners to expand critically important projects in rural communities that benefit both agricultural operations and high-value fisheries,” said Lisa Pelly, director of TU’s Washington Water Project. “We applaud the NRCS’ vision in encouraging collaborative solutions that work for our state’s magnificent rivers, farms and fish.”
Gunnison River Basin, CO:
The NRCS awarded TU $8 million for on- and off-farm water infrastructure in the lower Gunnison River Basin, a key tributary of the Colorado River. “TU is thrilled that we and our partners will be able to ramp up our work to conserve water and restore fish and wildlife habitat in the Colorado River Basin,” said Russ Schnitzer, TU’s agriculture policy advisor. “Over the past decade, aided by our hard-working volunteer members, TU has worked throughout the upper Colorado River Basin with agricultural partners in rural communities to develop projects that upgrade irrigation systems and restore important fish habitat. These pragmatic partnerships yield results that improve ranch and farm operations, restore watersheds and improve fishing and recreation opportunities.”
Bear River Basin, UT and WY:
The Upper Bear River in Utah and Wyoming is home to Bonneville cutthroat trout that reside in the cold, clear water that comes from the Uinta Mountains. The river also provides irrigation water to numerous ranches that are served by canals and other infrastructure that were built by the early settlers. Trout Unlimited has been working with agricultural producers and partners to upgrade and improve diversions, fish passage, and instream flows throughout 30 miles of river. The project will receive about $1.2 million in RCPP funding that will allow to TU to launch the next phases of this project that will improve water management and irrigation water delivery at five different canals.
“These improvements will enhance ranching, keep fish out of canals, and keep water in the river and that will result in more Bonneville cutthroat trout and better fishing,” said Jim DeRito, TU’s Bear River project manager.
Blackfoot River watershed, ID:
Since 2011, TU has been working with state and federal agencies and corporate and private landowner partners to upgrade aging irrigation infrastructure and improve habitat and fish passage for Yellowstone cutthroat trout in southeast Idaho’s Blackfoot River watershed. Those efforts received a huge boost with the announcement that NRCS will contribute roughly $435,000 via the new RCPP to improve fish passage and irrigation efficiencies at the last two remaining full-spanning irrigation diversions on the upper Blackfoot River. NRCS funding will be matched by $750,000 from three phosphate companies who operate in the region. Those companies—Monsanto, Agrium/Nu-West, and the J. R. Simplot Company—together with TU and the Idaho Conservation League, comprise The Upper Blackfoot Confluence, a regional partnership aimed at conserving the Blackfoot watershed and its fishery.
“This really is a unique partnership in a unique place that is restoring unique fish,” said Matt Woodard, TU’s Blackfoot River project manager. “The NRCS has provided valuable financial assistance over the past two years, and this new commitment will allow us to complete our fish passage restoration work on the mainstem river and improve irrigation efficiencies for two producers.”