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The Mississippi River basin should get more USDA conservation funding, a new report says

The Mississippi River from St. Feriole Island Park in Prairie du Chien, WI on June 22, 2017.
Mike De Sisti and Chelsey Lewis
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Mississippi River basin covers all or part of 31 states in the U.S, including Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, pictured here. Targeting conservation funds to the Mississippi River watershed could have far-reaching climate and water quality benefits.

A new report from the Environmental Working Group found targeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's conservation funding to the Mississippi River region would have huge benefits to water quality and the climate.

A new reportfrom the Environmental Working Group argues that the Mississippi River basin is not receiving enough conservation funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program is one of the department’s largest conservation programs and helps farmers integrate conservation practices on the land they are still producing on. The report shows that 36% percent of funding from this program went to the Mississippi River basin region between 2017 and 2020.

“We need more funding for conservation,” said Sarah Graddy from the Environmental Working Group, “and we need to target these dollars to the places where they'll have the most benefits.”

According to the report, more than 30 million acres of wetlands are planted with crops in the Mississippi River basin. This land is more prone to flooding and soil loss, as well as nutrient runoff, which flows downstream and contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Using practices that are “climate-smart” and reduce runoff on these lands could have a larger impact, the EWG claims.

Maisah Khan, the policy director of the Mississippi River Network, said the report highlights the need to look at the basin holistically and how targeting funds to the area would give “the most bang for your buck.”

“Knowing that we have a limited amount of funding and capacity to do these things, prioritizing on the watershed actually has a bigger impact,” she said, “and then that impact has ripple effects on the entire basin.”

The Mississippi River basin covers more than a million square miles and touches 31 states. Focusing on the region for a voluntary program like EQIP could also be beneficial because much of that land is farmed and privately-owned.

Cover crops — which are planted in-between growing seasons and keep carbon in the soil — is the most funded practice, according to the report.

“But that's just one tool,” said Graddy. “There are many, many tools that can help with climate change and water quality, so we need to be sharing the wealth.”

The report also said that some funding for the region is supporting practices that don't have benefits for nutrient pollution reduction or climate; such as fences and roofs. The EWG argues other funded efforts, including waste storage facilities, even have negative impacts and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

EQIP and other USDA conservation programs are voluntary, but there is more demand from farmers than there are funds available.

In a written statement, the USDA said that it has targeted funding to improve water quality through the National Water Quality Initiative and towards the Mississippi River basin through the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative.

The agency held a public comment period earlier this year for the National Water Quality Initiative to identify how best to improve the initiative starting in 2024.

“In addition, in the past two years, NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) has taken bold steps to support climate-smart agriculture,” said the USDA spokesperson. ”From piloting the Cover Crop Initiative to implementing Conservation Incentive Contracts, NRCS has used the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other programs to help producers plan and implement climate-smart practices.”

The agency also pointed to its new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, which has selected several projects in the Mississippi River Basin.

Both Khan and Graddy agreed that the upcoming 2023 farm bill, which must be renewed every five years, presents an opportunity to not only make sure these programs get funding, but also fund practices that are beneficial to climate and water quality.

“We know that the farm bill is really the main way that we can really target funds and reform these tent pole programs to best address the major challenges of agriculture,” Graddy said.

More than $19 billion also has become available for the USDA’s conservation programs, including EQIP through the Inflation Reduction Act, which has started its rollout. The act directs the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service offices to fund practices that are beneficial to the climate, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon, through efforts such as cover crops and wetland restoration.

“We have this opportunity with the working lands conservation programs to make the most of the precious remaining wetlands that we have, knowing that most of them are on farmland along the river,” said Khan.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

I report on agriculture, food and water issues for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. I’m based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. If you have story ideas, you can reach me at etesfaye@kcur.org or on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.
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