Report: Mississippi River in should get more conservation funding

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one of the department’s largest conservation programs and helps farmers integrate conservation practices, such as cover cropping and nutrient management.

A new report from the Environmental Working Group, an environmental and health nonprofit, argues that the Mississippi River basin is not receiving enough conservation funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one of the department’s largest conservation programs and helps farmers integrate conservation practices, such as cover cropping and nutrient management.

The report shows that 36% percent of funding from this program went to the Mississippi River basin region between 2017 and 2020. The Mississippi River basin covers more than a million square miles and touches 31 states.

“We need more funding for conservation,” said EWG spokesperson Sarah Graddy, “and we need to target these dollars to the places where they’ll have the most benefits.”

According to the report, more than 30 million acres of wetlands are planted with crops in the Mississippi River basin. This land is prone to flooding and soil loss, as well as nutrient runoff, which flows downstream and contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Using practices that are “climate-smart” and reduce runoff on these lands could have a larger impact, the EWG report argues.

Maisah Khan, the policy director of the Mississippi River Network, said the report highlights the need to look at the basin holistically.

“Knowing that we have a limited amount of funding and capacity to do these things, prioritizing on the watershed actually has a bigger impact,” she said, “and then that impact has ripple effects on the entire basin.”

Focusing on the region for a voluntary program like EQIP could also be beneficial because much of that land is farmed and privately-owned.

Cover crops — which are planted in between growing seasons and keep carbon in the soil — are the most funded practice, according to the report.

“But that’s just one tool,” said Graddy. “There are many, many tools that can help with climate change and water quality, so we need to be sharing the wealth.”

The report also said some funding for the region is supporting practices that don’t have benefits for nutrient pollution reduction or climate, such as constructing fences or roofs on farms and ranches. EWG argues other funded practices during this time period, including livestock waste storage facilities, even have negative impacts and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

EQIP and other USDA conservation programs are voluntary, but there is more demand from farmers than there are funds available.

In a written statement, the USDA said that it has targeted funding to improve water quality through the National Water Quality Initiative and towards the Mississippi River basin through the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative.

The agency held a public comment period earlier this year for the National Water Quality Initiative to identify how best to improve the initiative starting in 2024.

“In addition, in the past two years, NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) has taken bold steps to support climate-smart agriculture,” said a USDA spokesperson. ”From piloting the Cover Crop Initiative to implementing Conservation Incentive Contracts, NRCS has used the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other programs to help producers plan and implement climate-smart practices.”

The agency also pointed to its new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, which has selected several projects in the Mississippi River basin.

Both Khan and Graddy agreed that the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill, which must be renewed by Congress every five years, presents an opportunity to not only make sure these programs get funding, but also fund practices that are beneficial to climate and water quality.

More than $19 billion also has become available for the USDA’s conservation programs, including EQIP, through the Inflation Reduction Act, which has started its rollout. The act directs the USDA to fund practices that are beneficial to the climate, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon, through efforts such as cover crops and wetland restoration.

“We have this opportunity with the working lands conservation programs to make the most of the precious remaining wetlands that we have, knowing that most of them are on farmland along the river,” said Khan.

This story was produced by Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest, and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report For America.