California's air, water, wetlands and wildlife habitat all received a significant boost in 2012 as private landowners joined with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to voluntarily invest approximately a quarter billion dollars in protecting and restoring natural resources. The federal portion of the investment, $154.2 million, comes from a mix of financial incentive and easement programs funded by the conservation programs of the Farm Bill.
"Despite the difficult economic times, California's farmers, ranchers, non-industrial private forest owners, and conservation partners prioritized conservation in their 2012 operating plans. This commitment made it possible to successfully add more than 7,000 conservation practices across the California landscape and enhance the environment that we all share," said Jeff Burwell, acting state conservationist for NRCS.
Burwell pointed out that most of the Farm Bill programs require a match by the landowner that is typically about half the cost of applying the conservation practice. Additionally two of the conservation programs, the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) and the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), depend upon partners to partially plan and administer them. California leads the Nation in the number of AWEP projects investing in water conservation and water quality on private lands.
One of the largest partnerships in 2012 was between NRCS and California's dairy industry. This partnership worked with producers to invest $30 million in waste management plans and structural practices designed to help dairymen continue their efforts to comply with increasingly stringent California state water quality regulations.
California is home to some of the worst air quality in the nation. To help achieve California's clean air goals, farmers have joined with the NRCS by investing over $41 million - half of which was contributed by the participating farmers themselves - in 2012 to improve air quality.
Significant long-term emission reductions are being achieved from destroying and replacing over 450 old, high-polluting diesel engines powering off-road farm vehicles with 366 new, more-efficient systems that emit up to 98 percent fewer pollutants. Since 2009, the air quality efforts made by farmers and NRCS have reduced oxides of nitrogen emissions, an ozone precursor, by 2,120 tons per year; equivalent to removing 640,000 cars from California highways.
Waterfowl and wildlife habitat in California also benefited in 2012 from work done by NRCS, Resource Conservation Districts, and several other partners who provided financial resources as well as biological and technical expertise. A $6.7 million Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Project in six Sacramento Valley counties proved extremely successful with 120 rice farmers agreeing to habitat enhancements. The farmers are making habitat improvements such as flooding their fields to variable depths late into the winter when it is especially important to certain migrating birds. PRBO Conservation Science and other partners are monitoring the project to evaluate and quantify its success.
Declining species such as sage grouse and the southwest willow flycatcher will also benefit from habitat improvements funded by NRCS in 2012. In 2012, for the first time, NRCS funded contracts to assist Tricolored blackbirds, a rare species found only in California. NRCS partnered with Audubon California and the four farmers who found themselves host to tens of thousands of the colonial birds and agreed to delay harvest to permit 60,000 of the chicks to successfully fledge.
NRCS continued its historic water conservation work, helping farmers to improve irrigation and management systems. However in 2012, for the second year, NRCS also partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) to conserve irrigation water by matching improvements in water delivery infrastructure with improvements in water management on the farm. The five projects are saving 17,646 acre feet of water per year at the delivery point, plus an estimated 25 percent increased efficiency from improvements made on-farm.
The NRCS/Reclamation water conservation program, as well as the Sacramento Valley Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Project, were funded by the NRCS National Bay Delta Initiative.
Three easement programs provided $41.5 million to landowners who voluntarily elected to protect important landscapes such as farmland, grazing land, and wetlands. The 2012 easements include the following: six easements that permanently protect six farms from development; one permanent easement and another 20-year rental agreement to protect grazing lands; and funds to establish 35 new wetlands easements and to do restoration on 93 new and existing wetland easements.
NRCS is the conservation branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and provides technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers interested in voluntarily improving environmental functioning on their land for on-site and off-site benefits. Conservation plans are developed by conservationists and landowners who may apply for financial assistance to execute their plans. While, the federal Farm Bill has not been extended at this time, NRCS offices continue to provide planning and technical assistance and are taking 2013 applications pending legislative action.