Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced that the USDA has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Minnesota to develop a new state program for farmers designed to increase the voluntary adoption of conservation practices that protect local rivers, streams and other waters by reducing fertilizer run-off and soil erosion. Through this partnership producers, who undertake a substantial level of conservation activities to reduce nutrient run-off and erosion, will receive assurance from the state that their farms will meet Minnesota's water quality standards and goals during the life of the agreement. Vilsack, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed the MOU during a ceremony in the Minnesota Capitol.
"Establishment of this program will protect our water resources by providing assurances and incentives to participating farmers that their good deeds – their strong commitment to conservation – will be recognized," Vilsack says. "Farmers will know the rules of the game while the state, EPA and the public will know that this program will lead to cleaner water."
"Clean, healthy waters are essential to the health of our people and to our nation's farmers," says EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "I believe that local conservation efforts, like those supported through this MOU, are among the most effective means for improving water quality in our nation."
"Water and food are two of society's essential resources," Gov. Dayton says. "We are taking a bold step for a program which keeps agriculture a cornerstone of our economy and also protects the health of our rivers, lakes and streams. It is vital that we have both. I also want to thank President Obama, Secretary Vilsack and Administrator Jackson for their outstanding leadership in advancing this initiative. We look forward to a strong working partnership."
USDA and EPA will offer support to Minnesota in developing its certainty process for water quality improvements on private agricultural lands and eligible tribal lands in high priority watersheds. While this idea is new to protection of water quality, "certainty agreements" have been successful for encouraging private landowners to conserve wildlife habitat. For example, USDA already has helped 11 Western states establish a certainty process to protect the sage-grouse, a candidate species for the Endangered Species List. The sage-grouse effort has been successfully, resulting in an increase of the bird's habitat on ranch land in the West. Eventually, USDA and its partners hope to duplicate this success in addressing water quality on agricultural lands across the nation.
The MOU signing is the first step toward developing the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (AWQCP), designed to increase the adoption of recommended conservation practices to improve water quality on agricultural land. The MOU signing formalizes the state-federal partnership and confirms a joint commitment to developing and implementing the program.
After the MOU signing, Minnesota and its partners will establish a Technical Advisory Committee to develop the certification program that will support the state's water quality standards and goals. The committee will solicit input from stakeholders in designing criteria to provide certainty for producers who have voluntarily attained or maintained a certain level of water quality improvements on their agricultural land. Minnesota will test the program in several pilot watersheds.
The Minnesota AWQCP is a state-federal partnership that includes USDA, EPA, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
For more information about USDA's conservation programs that improve water quality, please visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs.