Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Funding Opportunities: NRCS Watershed Programs

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act recently passed both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Biden. The infrastructure package includes billions of dollars in investments for the resilience of natural systems. NACD’s Government Affairs Team will be releasing a series of blog posts to break down funding opportunities for districts through the infrastructure law as agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and others work to get this funding implemented on the ground.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $918 million in funding for the three USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) watershed programs. The funding represents a significant investment of discretionary funding for these programs in addition to the allotted funding they receive through the Farm Bill. Conservation districts interested in pursuing watershed projects can reach out to their District Conservationist and State NRCS Office to explore funding requests. Initial project funding selections will be made in January 2022, but NRCS will continue accepting funding requests on a rolling basis as long as funds are available.

Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program

Through the Act, $500 million has been provided to NRCS’ Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations (WFPO) Program. This investment more than doubles the discretionary and allotted funding for the program in fiscal year (FY)21. Authorized by the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act (PL-566), WFPO provides financial and technical assistance for erosion and sediment control, watershed protection, flood prevention, water quality improvements, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement, and other purposes. Tide gates and land treatment measures that are part of a larger plan and design approved by NRCS could be funded through the WFPO program.

Requests for WFPO funding must total no more than $25 million and fewer than 250,000 acres. They must also include at least 20 percent in benefits to agriculture and/or rural communities. Priorities for theFY22 WFPO program include requests that help address western drought and water, or serve historically underserved and socially disadvantaged communities, tribal communities, and new sponsors. To get started, a Sponsoring Local Organization (SLO), which may be a conservation district, can work with their District Conservationist and State NRCS Office to develop a Preliminary Investigation Feasibility Report (PIFR) to be reviewed by the State Conservationist.

Watershed Rehabilitation Program

The Act also includes $118 million for NRCS’ Watershed Rehabilitation Program (REHAB). This program provides technical and financial assistance to rehabilitate dams originally constructed by NRCS. Priority is given to high hazard dams where failure may cause loss of life or serious damage to homes, buildings, utilities, and roads. An SLO requests assistance by submitting a letter to the NRCS State Conservationist. The next steps in the process include an assessment report and plan, both funded by NRCS. Dam decommissioning may be an eligible activity if it has been identified in the plan as the best alternative, and there may also be opportunities to add water supply to dam rehabilitation projects. NRCS typically covers up to 65% of construction costs, and SLOs must agree to a new operations and management (O&M) plan with NRCS. O&M is not funded by this program.

Emergency Watershed Protection Program

The Act provides NRCS’ Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program with $300 million. The EWP program funds projects that provide protection from flooding and soil erosion to safeguard lives and property when a natural disaster causes a watershed impairment. There must be a federal emergency declaration or local watershed emergency, with permanent structures at risk, and funding requests should be made no later than 60 days after a disaster declaration. SLOs request assistance using a template letter provided by the EWP program Manager in their state or territory. Through meetings and site visits, NRCS determines if the project is EWP eligible. If so, a Damage Survey Report (DSR) is completed within 60 days of the formal request, and if funding is available, up to 75% in financial and technical assistance can be provided by the State Conservationist through an agreement. Funding from the EWP program cannot be used for O&M or to repair coastal erosion to beaches, dunes, or shorelines. More details can be found in the EWPP National Sponsor Guide.

More information about NRCS watershed programs can be found here or in these recorded training webinars for eligible sponsors held in December 2021.

District Success Stories

Conservation districts are involved in many of these projects as sponsors and help bring funding into realized watershed improvements. One example of that can be seen in the work the Westmoreland Conservation District (WCD), of Pennsylvania, has done on a watershed-wide flood control project (PL 566). More than 50 years ago, the district worked with NRCS and landowners to install three flood-control dams, one flood control channel, and implemented conservation practices to prevent erosion. Now, an adjunct of the original project has been funded to address new arising problems in tributaries of that watershed which have been causing damage to the surrounding community.

Another example can be seen in Massachusetts where the Cape Cod Conservation District has been a partner in the Cape Cod Water Resources Restoration Project funded through the WFPO program. The project is addressing water quality concerns through improvements to the salt marsh, fish passage, and shellfish resources of Cape Cod.

Watershed projects like these are critical to maintaining the health and resilience of both the watershed and surrounding communities.

To have your district’s success story highlighted in an upcoming publication, please contact NACD’s Communications Team.

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