Ag Policy Blog

USDA Identifies Priority Watersheds in Mississippi River Basin

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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USDA released a map detailing 379 priority watersheds in the Mississippi River basin for funding and technical support to help improve surface water quality. (Image from USDA's NRCS)

USDA on Thursday identified 379 watersheds in the Mississippi River basin as priority watersheds to help farmers and landowners reduce nutrient runoff related to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.

USDA did not explain why those 379 specific watersheds were chosen or how much funding would be provided to help farmers and landowners with technical assistance and conservation.

Producers in the targeted watersheds will receive both technical resources and financial support through the Natural Resources Conservation Service programs.

Bill Northey, USDA's Farm Production and Conservation undersecretary, announced the 379 watersheds on a livestreamed EPA Hypoxia Task Force meeting.

“These focused partnerships allow us to maximize the delivery of our conservation efforts and achieve greater improvements to water quality, which benefits the participating producers, the public and our nation's natural resources," Northey said.

Coming out of the 2008 farm bill, USDA created the 12-state Mississippi River Basin Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) partially to help address some of the strategies in the watershed linked to the EPA hypoxia task force. The MRBI provide increased incentives and sign up opportunities for USDA conservation programs such as the Environmental Qualities Incentive Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

The watersheds selected as priority watersheds stretch from central Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, but watersheds included involve the entire bottom one-third of Minnesota, and a high concentration on the southern part of the Mississippi River, especially in the eastern parts of Arkansas. USDA stated it will implement more conservation practices in most of the watersheds while plan for future implementation in others.

USDA did not state how much funding was available for the FY 2021 projects. IN FY 2019, USDA spent $22 million on 506 EQIP contracts involving 88,897 acres in 11 states, which breaks down to about $248 per acre in funding for projects.

From 2010 to 2019, USDA spent $307 million on the MRBI conservation projects, involving 1.46 million acres.

USDA's MRBI update for 2019 states the initiative has reduced sediment loss by 86% of the MRBI's 2023 milestones and reduced phosphorus runoff 86% from 2023 goals. Nitrogen loss has been reduced 86% of the 2023 goals.

Still, USDA highlights the department has treated about 40% of acres identified under the Soil Vulnerability Index.

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/…

Senators Target Conservation Easements

A group of senators are looking to clamp down on conservation easements that have become major tax write-offs for various partnerships.

A Senate Finance Committee report released in August found "syndicated conservation-easement transactions" had become worth $10.6 billion in tax deductions for a group of investors.

In 2015 there were 169 syndicated conservation-easement transactions that jumped to 244 such transactions by 2017. In one year, use of the conservation transactions jumped from $6.8 billion in deductions in 2017 to $9.2 billion in 2018.

The IRS, as of last February, was auditing at least 84% of these partnerships. Business executives, athletes, lawyers and others became heavily involved in these syndicated conservation-easement transactions. For most taxpayers involved in the easements, the taxpayers saved $2 in taxes for every dollar they paid to the tax-shelter promoters, the Senate report stated.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced a bill with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., stating their bill would protect conservation easements but prohibit abusive tax schemes.

The bill, the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act, would disallow a charitable deduction if it exceeds 2.5 times 250% of a partner's original investment. The lawmakers state the bill maintains the charitable deduction for people actually focused on charity and conservation lands.

“This legislation confronts the well-documented abuse of syndicated conservation easement transactions and, by extension, protects the true integrity of the program. These abusive transactions come at significant expense to American taxpayers and undermine the family farms and ranches that use conservation easements as a legitimate charitable tool,” Roberts said. “Congress should act quickly and pass this bill this year.”

Senate Finance Committee report on conservation easement transactions: https://www.finance.senate.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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