By Eric Hansen
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program application period is now open!
Earlier this month, USDA launched the 2019 application period for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). RCPP matches Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) funding with non-federal funding and in-kind support to implement targeted conservation projects using farm bill conservation programs.
Projects have been awarded to producer groups, state agencies, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, water and irrigation districts, municipal water treatment entities and local governments. In the first five years of the program, a district or state association has been the lead partner on an impressive 93 out of a total of 365 projects – over 25 percent of all projects. This does not account for the many projects where districts work as partners but are not the lead sponsor.
The Announcement of Program Funding (APF) for RCPP has been significantly delayed this year because of the new farm bill. The 2018 Farm Bill made some major changes to the program, which NRCS needed to account for in the new APF. Information on these program changes is available in this NACD blog.
The APF includes several changes from past years, which districts will want to carefully examine as they prepare their application. These include:
- Changes to contracting with individual landowners;
- Guidance on the allocation of technical assistance funding; and
- Required project outcomes data and reporting.
One significant change for applicants is that NRCS eliminated the pre-proposal process this year. Earlier this year, NACD recommended that NRCS remove this step from the process, as our members have found it to be redundant with the full proposal.
Changes to Contracting with Individual Landowners
The 2018 Farm Bill made a significant, structural change to RCPP by making the program independent of other farm bill conservation programs. Previously, RCPP had drawn funding from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). RCPP projects ultimately had landowners signing contracts within these programs. Following the new farm bill, RCPP is now funded independently and has its own contracting authority. RCPP must still use these other programs as a guide, but this has significantly changed the way the program operates.
The RCPP APF outlines three types of contracts that NRCS may make directly with landowners as a part of an RCPP project:
- Land Management/Restoration (similar to EQIP, CSP and restoration work in the Wetland Reserve Program and Healthy Forest Reserve Program);
- NRCS-Held Easement (similar to the Wetland Reserve Program, Healthy Forest Reserve Program and floodplain easements in the Watershed Programs); and
- Land Rental (similar to the Conservation Reserve Program).
In addition, NRCS plans to make funding agreements directly with the RCPP partner organization for:
- Entity-Held Easements (similar to ACEP’s Agricultural Land Easements) and
- Public Works/Watershed Agreements (similar to the Watershed Programs).
While these agreement types will operate similarly to the programs outlined above, they do have more flexibility. In particular, the APF notes that easements can be used on all manner of private lands, rather than just the land uses traditionally covered by the program. The APF also suggests that contracting with an individual landowner could be streamlined to cover multiple conservation practices or activities within a signal contract.
As mentioned above, CRP-type activities are now allowed under RCPP as well. However, NRCS does not anticipate that this new authority will be used to enroll large tracts of land in the same manner as a CRP General Sign-up. The APF suggests using this authority to pay a landowner for forgone income from a new cropping system or organic transition over a one- to three-year period.
Guidance on the Allocation of Technical Assistance Funding
When NACD wrote to NRCS about the RCPP application process this past spring, we recommended providing more clarity on the roles and responsibilities for technical assistance. The 2019 APF provides a significant amount of information on technical assistance responsibilities and funding.
Projects may allocate up to 30 percent of the total budget to technical assistance. The remaining funding is allocated to financial assistance for the five contract types outlined above. NRCS differentiates between two different types of technical assistance – implementation technical assistance and enhancement technical assistance. Implementation technical assistance is fixed at 23 percent of the total project funding. Five percent is retained by NRCS for required compliance activities, like verifying producer adjusted gross income and highly erodible land compliance. The remaining 18 percent can be used by either NRCS or the partner for conservation planning, practice design, easement monitoring and similar activities.
Projects may also apply for up to 7 percent of the total project as enhancement technical assistance. This funding may be used for project management, producer outreach, outcomes evaluation and similar activities. The APF notes that this 7 percent will likely not cover all the needed costs of these activities. However, partners can fund these activities on their own and use this as match funding for the project.
Required Project Outcomes Data and Reporting
In past years, partners were only required to report to NRCS their activities and deliverables, such as the number of plans written or easements closed. Starting in 2019, new projects will be required to include a plan for reporting on environmental outcomes such as the number of pounds of nutrient runoff avoided or tons of carbon sequestered. While reporting on economic or social outcomes is not required, projects that propose reporting on these metrics will be given priority. The RCPP APF requests that proposals identify the outcomes to be measured and the link between project deliverables and outcomes. The precise methodology and plan for data collection and reporting will be developed together with NRCS after the proposal is selected.
Additional Application Changes
The RCPP APF contains a few other changes of note from past years. First, each state now has identified a state RCPP coordinator. While some states had these in the past, this is now a uniform requirement across states. Applicants are strongly encouraged to meet with their state’s coordinator to discuss their project idea before submitting a proposal.
Second, there is no longer a national funding pool. Starting in 2019, applicants can apply for funding in the Critical Conservation Area (CCA) pool or the state/multi-state pool. These two funding pools split the overall $300 million funding in half. Multi-state projects are required to identify a “lead state” for their project.
NACD is still waiting on some additional information about the program. First, the application portal is not open yet. Although application materials are currently available, partners need to wait to actually submit their proposals. In addition, NRCS has not finished writing the regulations that will govern RCPP yet. Even though NRCS is accepting applications right now, they cannot award any projects until these regulations are published.
Finally, the 2018 Farm Bill created a grant provision within RCPP, where the entire financial and technical assistance funding will be granted to the project partner. NACD strongly opposed the creation of this grant provision. These grants are not included in the APF. NRCS plans to issue a separate announcement about this part of the program in the future.