The importance of Section 319 grants

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By Eric Hansen

Conservation districts draw on a variety of funding sources to protect and conserve our nation’s natural resources. Districts pull from farm bill conservation programs, state resource protection programs, and leverage private funds to achieve conservation objectives. They also can apply for funding through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Section 319 program.

Fast Facts on Section 319

The EPA’s Section 319 program specifically focuses on nonpoint sources of water pollution, such as agricultural runoff, abandoned mine drainage, and soil erosion. Unlike point sources that originate from a fixed point – such as a pipe, water treatment facility, or industrial plant – nonpoint sources are much more diffuse, and as a result, more difficult to address.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 gave the EPA authority to regulate point source pollution – but not nonpoint source pollution. It wasn’t until 1987, when Congress amended CWA to include Section 319, that a grant program was established to help states, territories, and tribes curb nonpoint pollution through voluntary incentives.

Earlier this month, the Trump White House proposed eliminating this highly effective, state-directed grant program. NACD knows how critically important Section 319 grants are to helping communities keep our nation’s streams, rivers, and lakes healthy and productive – that’s why we’re speaking up.

Section 319 in Action: Iowa and Minnesota

With help from Section 319, the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in Iowa has been improving the water quality in the Badger Creek Lake Watershed. The district used a planning grant to conduct an assessment of the watershed and to create a watershed management plan complete with specific load reduction goals. Since 2013, the district has been working with landowners to install terraces, grassed waterways, and cover crops to meet the plan’s objectives.

A unique feature of the Section 319 program is its leveraging requirement. Roughly $420,000 in Section 319 funds for the Badger Creek Lake project were supplemented with more than $200,000 in state funding and additional resources from the USDA National Water Quality Initiative and private landowners.

You can access hundreds of Section 319 success stories on EPA’s website:

Because 319 grants are coming from EPA, not USDA, conservation partnerships also have flexibility in how they apply project funding. For instance, the Madison County SWCD was able to install conservation practices on state-owned land adjacent to Badger Creek Lake – an area that by law couldn’t be improved upon with USDA funds.

States can direct 319 funds toward local outreach and education efforts, as well. In Iowa, the Madison County SWCD used a portion of its 319 grant to post signage about their district’s 319 project and the benefits of using cover crops. These signs helped to engage landowners and residents that wouldn’t have known about, or participated in, conservation work otherwise.

The Mower SWCD in Minnesota used Section 319 funding a little differently.

The district, in partnership with the University of Minnesota, is evaluating how best management practices (BMPs) installed throughout the Dabbins Creek Watershed as part of a statewide initiative have helped to improve water quality.

To quantify those improvements, the partners measured total dissolved solids, nitrate and phosphorus levels, and fish and macroinvertebrate populations before the BMPs were installed. Three years after installation, the partners will again measure these same variables to determine the efficacy of certain BMPs in specific applications.

With these funds, the district will not only help to improve local watershed health, it will help to build scientific evidence for future watershed restoration projects.

Looking Ahead

The president’s FY18 budget proposes a 31 percent cut to the EPA’s overall budget. Recently, a draft internal EPA budget recommendation, which called for eliminating the Section 319 program in its entirety, was circulated by the media. In the administration’s justification for eliminating 319, it suggested all voluntary, nonpoint source conservation efforts should be conducted through USDA.

This rationale ignores the unique and complementary role the Section 319 program plays in helping local communities address nonpoint source pollution from urban stormwater runoff, abandoned mine drainage, sediments from construction sites, and so many other non-agricultural sources.

The Trump administration has turned its back on the Section 319 program at a time when voluntary conservation programs are needed more than ever. NACD will continue to work on Capitol Hill and beyond Washington, D.C., to secure robust support for the Section 319 program and others like it.

eric-hansen-capitolEric Hansen is NACD’s Northeast Region representative and policy specialist. He can be reached by email at

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