Bill would extend regional conservation program

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow has introduced bipartisan legislation that would continue a Farm Bill program using federal dollars to leverage private investment in conservation and restoration projects across a region or watershed.

The bill, co-sponsored with Iowa GOP Sen. Jodi Ernst, would double the money available for the the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to $475 million a year, which would then leverage another $475M for private funding.

“It’s all focused on keeping our rivers and streams and great lakes clean and safe, cleaning up areas in Lake Erie where there have been so many challenges, and focusing on how we protecting our Michigan way of life — boating, fishing, swimming hunting, as well as our largest drinking water source,” Stabenow told reporters on a call Tuesday.

Stabenow, ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, authored the program in the 2014 Farm Bill.

She said the new legislation will allow the program to focus on critical conservation areas such as the Great Lakes region, while giving more flexibility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to administer the program with more local control.

“As we have seen in Iowa, the RCPP is a successful and cost-effective approach to encourage voluntary and proactive conservation,” Ernst said in a statement.

The USDA, which evaluates project applications on a competitive basis, has funded eight projects in Michigan for a total $55 million in federal dollars, matched by another $55 million in private resources, Stabenow said.

One of those is a $10 million project sponsored by the Michigan Nature Conservancy, with $7.7 million going to farmers in financial assistance and $2.3 million for technical assistance from USDA and other agencies, said Rich Bowman of the Nature Conservancy.

He said the goal in the project was to reduce sediment going into streams in Saginaw Bay by over 3,000 tons and reduce phosphorus going into bay by 17,400 pounds.

Phosphorus from fertilizers and manure running off from farms can feed the growth of algae and weeds and cause a ecological problems like the bloom affecting Lake Erie.

This program has been great for us. We had a few challenges which this bill addresses.”