A winning partnership: Conservation districts and the NRCS Watershed Stewardship Program

Guest Column By Mark Gilbert, National Watershed Coalition

While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) may be better known for providing a financial safety net for farmers and ranchers, USDA also provides an actual safety net for our rural communities. The Watershed and Flood Prevention Program (Watershed Program) is a vital, but often overlooked, infrastructure program within the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) portfolio.

The Watershed Program authorizes NRCS to work with local units of government, like conservation districts and city/county governments, to install watershed protection and improvement projects that provide communities with flood prevention, agriculture water management, municipal water supply management, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement, as well as public recreation development. At the heart of the program is the goal of helping communities with flood prevention as well as helping to proactively mitigate flooding and other natural resource concerns. This program literally saves lives and protects infrastructure such as roads, bridges, homes, and businesses. More than 11,800 flood control structures have been constructed in 2,000 watersheds nationwide and they represent nearly one third of all dams ever built by the federal government. Every project requires that a portion of the watershed must be covered with installed best management conservation practices. Every year, this system of flood control lakes and conservation measures protects over 47 million Americans and saves an estimated $2 billion through flood damage reduction.

Most of the structures built under the Watershed Program have a design life of 50 years. Since most of this construction occurred from the late 1940’s to the early 1970’s, many of these dams are in need of rehabilitation to ensure they remain safe and continue to provide benefits. To assist with this process, Congress established the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Program in 2000 that shares in the cost of rehabilitation with state and local sponsors. Rehabilitation is necessary to ensure the dams continue to provide the protection rural communities desperately need.

The importance of these programs has increased as population centers have grown near these projects. The recently passed FY2017 Appropriations bill acknowledges  the need for this important infrastructure program and appropriated $150 million for Watershed Operations and $21 million for Rehabilitation. This funding will go a long way in protecting our rural communities.

Conservation districts have been a major player throughout the history of the Watershed program, primarily as local sponsors of the flood control projects constructed under the program. When designated as the primary sponsor of a project, districts have provided annual operation and maintenance of dams as well as providing funding for rehabilitation. In recent years, conservation districts have successfully expanded the focus of the Watershed program to include mitigation of extreme weather events and have added increased environmental benefits.

There are hundreds of examples across the country that illustrate how conservation districts along with other Watershed Program sponsors have partnered with USDA-NRCS to implement and maintain watershed projects. One of best examples is in Wise County, Texas. In the mid 1950’s, flooding almost destroyed the agricultural economy in the county and critical rural infrastructure was severely damaged. In the years that followed, the Wise County Soil and Water Conservation District began to seek both solutions and active partners to address their flooding and natural resource problems.

The district today continues to partner with the Wise County Commissioners Court, the Wise County Water Control and Improvement District, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, USDA-NRCS, and even the downstream water users in the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) to construct, operate, and maintain flood control dams in Wise County. Further, in partnership with TRWD, they assist Wise County landowners in applying conservation practices on the land upstream from the flood control lakes. These flood control dams and conservation practices help maintain both the quantity and quality of water flowing into major municipal water supply lakes.

This is just one example of how conservation districts, along with local, state, and federal agencies work together to solve natural resource problems. Indeed, conservation district Watershed Program partnerships dot the landscape in one fashion or another in every state.  Additional partnership stories from the USDA Watershed Program can be found on our National Watershed Coalition web page at www.watershedcoalition.org.

Mark Gilbert is the chairman of the National Watershed Coalition, as well as the executive director for the Mississippi State Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

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