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USDA Amplifies Water Quality Efforts in Trinity River Basin

story by Dee Ann Littlefield

Approximately 77 percent of Americans cannot accurately identify the natural source of the water used in their homes, according to a 2011 poll conducted by the Nature Conservancy.

The reality is that rain which falls on rural agricultural land in Texas flows into major rivers and city reservoirs. A raindrop that fell in north Texas might end up on someone's dinner table in Fort Worth, or be used by someone in Huntsville to take a shower, or be made into ice cubes for a glass of iced tea at a restaurant in Livingston.

Over 40 percent of Texans receive their water supply from the Trinity River. The 512-mile long river flows from its headwaters north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex (DFW) to its outlet in Galveston Bay, draining an area of over 18,000 square miles, most of which is private land.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes that management of private farm and ranchland in the Trinity River watershed impacts the quality of water that arrives at municipal water treatment centers. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently unveiled a National Water Quality Initiative plan which will provide $2.8 million toward land management practices that focus on improving water quality in the Chambers Creek Watershed, a subwatershed of the Trinity River Basin in Navarro and Ellis Counties.

On May 17, 2012, Salvador Salinas, State Conservationist for the USDA-NRCS, announced the rollout of the program with project partners at an event on Gary and Sue Price's 77 Ranch near Corsicana, Texas.

"Today, we are announcing a new effort to help landowners in this region who want to protect and care for their productive land and their soil in ways that will improve the quality of the stormwater that drains off of it and into our creeks and rivers," Salinas said.

"This voluntary, incentive based program keeps agriculture a cornerstone of our economy and also protects the health of our water systems," he said.

The targeted watershed encompasses 152,309 acres above the Richland-Chambers Reservoir, which supplies a large portion of the water for 1.8 million residents in Tarrant County through the Tarrant Regional Water District's water supply system.

Through the Initiative, the NRCS will provide incentive payments to landowners in the targeted watershed in Navarro and Ellis Counties through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for implementing land management practices that conserve soil and water and improve the quality of water entering the Trinity River.

"Conservation efforts have been building in the Trinity River Basin watershed for several years now," said Ken Klaveness, Executive Director of Trinity Waters, a landowner organization committed to conserving the water and wildlife resources of the Trinity River Basin. "This new initiative will work hand-in-hand with ongoing conservation water quality work in Texas and build on the success we have had in the past."

NRCS will continue to coordinate with local and state agencies, conservation districts, nongovernmental organizations, and others to implement this initiative. This strategic approach will leverage funds and provide streamlined assistance to help individual agricultural producers take needed actions to reduce the flow of sediment, nutrients, and other runoff into impaired waterways.

The Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB) is the lead state agency for planning, implementing, and managing programs for preventing and abating agricultural and silvicultural nonpoint sources of water pollution, works closely with Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), with both agencies partnering in this initiative to provide guidance at the local level. Other partners such as Trinity Waters and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are working to provide additional funding sources. The Texas Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Navarro and Ellis-Prairie Soil and Water Conservation Districts will assist in delivering the funds to the landowners participating in the conservation programs.

"We believe this initiative led by NRCS is an excellent example of how many different partners, local, state, and federal, can come together to empower private landowners to create a public water quality benefit," stated John Foster, TSSWCB Statewide Programs Officer.

Examples of conservation practices that can make a difference in water quality include planting grass borders around fields to trap sediment, fertilizers, and pesticides in field runoff before it can enter a water system. Other examples include reducing the number of times a farmer plows his field (conservation tillage) or planting cover crops in between production crops to reduce erosion during rainfall events. Legume cover crops such as alfalfa or peas have the added benefit of naturally providing the required quantity of nitrogen for crop production. This reduces the need for the farmer to apply nitrogen in chemical fertilizer form.

Salinas stressed his agency focus would be on providing financial and technical assistance toward this effort to help farmers and ranchers plan, implement conservation practices on the land. Salinas explained this is not a regulatory program. Landowner participation is voluntary, but many find it a beneficial way to reduce input costs and enhance productivity of their land through improved soil health and more efficient use of rainfall.

"The key to all of these efforts is the willingness of the landowners to do something good for their neighbors while protecting the large investment they have in their land," Salinas said.

The Price's have been working with the NRCS and the Navarro Soil and Water Conservation District for over 35 years to implement conservation practices on their ranch, which lies in the Chambers Creek Watershed. The Price's began addressing water quality several years ago when they converted a portion of their cropland to a wetland. This has minimized sediment loading, erosion, and other water quality issues, while greatly improving waterfowl. They established a riparian buffer near the wetland along Mill Creek with native grasses and forbs to reduce erosion and runoff and enhance wildlife habitat for both Bobwhite Quail and Rio Grande Turkey.

While their ranch is considered a model of conservation, recently receiving Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association's Outstanding Rangeland Stewardship award for 2012, they said they know there is always more that can be done. The Prices are putting in an application for the new NWQI for a portion of their ranch where they want to address erosion concerns and create healthy water corridors.

"We understand the awesome responsibility of stewardship we have to the land and our community," Gary said.

Darrel Andrews, Tarrant Regional Water District Assistant Director, environmental division, noted that good soil and water conservation measures to improve the quality of water that flows into the Trinity River system can reduce municipal water treatment costs and lower bills for consumers. Andrews also pointed out that stopping soil erosion prevents sediment from building up in the bottom of lakes and reservoirs, which can reduce their water storage capacity.

"Our public water supplies are going to be positively affected by this effort by private landowners," said Andrews. "This is a long-term project that has the potential to make generational impacts."

More information on the NWQI program in Texas can be found at www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov.

Note: Photos of agriculture and conservation work in Texas are available at http://nrcsphoto-gallery.smugmug.com.


Gary (right) and Sue Price ranch in the Chambers Creek Watershed in central Texas. For over 35 years they have been implementing conservation practices on their "77 Ranch" and have submitted an application for the new national water quality initiative in Texas. A pasture on the north end of rancher Gary Price's 20,000 acres on his "77 Ranch" in Navarro County near Corsicana, Texas in the Chambers Creek Watershed, which is part of the Trinity River Basin that provides water for over 40 percent of the Texas population.

Gary, right, and Sue Price ranch in the Chambers Creek Watershed in central Texas. For over 35 years they have been implementing conservation practices on their "77 Ranch" and have submitted an application for the new national water quality initiative in Texas.

A pasture on the north end of rancher Gary Price's 20,000 acres on his "77 Ranch" in Navarro County near Corsicana, Texas in the Chambers Creek Watershed, which is part of the Trinity River Basin that provides water for over 40 percent of the Texas population.

NRCS Texas State Conservationist Salvador Salinas announces the new national water quality initiative will provide over $2 million in funding to farmers, ranchers and timberland owners along a major watershed of the Trinity River Basin to encourage conservation practices that will have a positive impact on Texas' rivers, lakes and streams.

NRCS Texas State Conservationist Salvador Salinas announces the new national water quality initiative will provide over $2 million in funding to farmers, ranchers and timberland owners along a major watershed of the Trinity River Basin to encourage conservation practices that will have a positive impact on Texas' rivers, lakes and streams.