NRCS Provides Assistance for Agricultural Producers to Improve Water Quality
José Castro, Assistant State Conservationist for Programs
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will provide $232,000 in assistance to Caribbean Area farmers and ranchers in two priority watersheds who voluntarily make improvements to their land to improve water quality.
This year’s funding for the National Water Quality Initiative will help farmers and ranchers reduce the runoff of nutrients, sediment and pathogens from agricultural land that can flow into waterways. Now in its third year, NWQI in the Caribbean Area has expanded to include the Río Guanajibo watershed, as well as Río Grande de Añasco.
“This targeted approach provides a way to accelerate voluntary, private lands conservation investments to improve water quality and to focus water quality monitoring and assessment funds where they are most needed,” NRCS Caribbean Area Director, Edwin Almodóvar, said. “When hundreds of farms take action in one area, one watershed, it can make a difference — it can stop an algae bloom downstream or keep bacteria from reaching a drinking water source.”
With the help of partners at the local, state and national level, NRCS identified priority watersheds where on-farm conservation investments will deliver the greatest water quality benefits. State water quality agencies and local partners also provide assistance with watershed planning, additional dollars and assistance for conservation, along with outreach to farmers and ranchers. Through NWQI, these partnerships are growing and offering a model for collaborative work in other watersheds.
The Río Grande de Añasco and Río Guanajibo are two of the primary rivers discharging into Mayagüez Bay, draining one of the largest watersheds in Puerto Rico. The Rio Grande de Añasco has a 257 square mile watershed and includes portions of Añasco, Mayagüez, Las Marías, Maricao, San Sebastián, Lares, Yauco, and Adjuntas municipalities. The Río Guanajibo is approximately 325 miles long, includes a 37-acre estuary, and drains 127 square miles, including the municipalities of Cabo Rojo, Hormigueros, Las Marias, Mayagüez, Maricoa, Sabana Grande and San Germán. The Añasco watershed is ranked # 5 on the list of impaired watersheds in the Puerto Rico Unified Watershed Assessment, due primarily to sediment, bacterial and chemical contamination (low dissolved oxygen, high arsenic and turbidity). Many of these pollutants are directly related to agricultural sources such as fertilizers, pesticides and manure from crop and pasture lands. The 2012 assessment also found that 47% of Río Guanajibo’s total stream miles are impacted by agricultural activities, specifically fecal coliform, low dissolved oxygen (DO), turbidity, and pesticides. NRCS has identified sheet and rill erosion, water quality and quantity, plant health, flooding and invasive species as the primary resource concerns that will be addressed in the watersheds through this initiative.
“The collaborative goal is to ensure that people and wildlife have clean, safe water,” said Director Almodóvar. “Water quality improvement takes time, but by working together and leveraging our technical and financial assistance, we are better able to help farmers and ranchers take voluntary actions to improve water quality while maintaining or improving agricultural productivity.”
Eligible landowners will receive assistance under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to install conservation systems that help avoid, trap and control run-off in these high-priority watersheds. These practices may include nutrient management, cover crops, conservation cropping systems, filter strips, and in some cases, edge-of-field water quality monitoring.
Through several different processes, NRCS and partners are measuring the effects of conservation practices on water quality. Edge-of-field monitoring and an NRCS tool, Water Quality Index for Agricultural Runoff, help landowners assess the impact of conservation practices on water flowing off their land.
NRCS encourages producers in the Guanajibo and Añasco watersheds to submit applications for financial assistance through NWQI. The cut-off date for applications is August 15, 2014. Check with your local NRCS office or visit our NWQI page to see if you are located in a selected watershed.