RETREAT - About a dozen members of the Rush Creek Watershed Council gathered at the Retreat Sportsmen’s Club on Thursday, Jan. 5, to learn about expanded conservation funding. Justin Olson and Karyl Fritsche of USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) shared information and advice with the group.
Olson is the USDA-NRCS District Conservationist for Monroe and Vernon counties. Fritsche is a USDA-NRCS Resource Conservationist, serving producers and landowners in Crawford and Richland counties.
The Rush Creek Watershed has its headwaters in Vernon County’s Sterling Township, and flows through the northwest corner of Crawford County. Rush Creek is a tributary of the Mississippi River, with its confluence just north of the Village of Ferryville. The Rush Creek State Natural Area is contained in the watershed, and the creek is listed by Wisconsin DNR as a Class One Trout Fishery.
The expanded funding is made available through the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 2022. The funding is intended to tap the potential of agriculture to slow and reverse the impacts of climate change, improve soil health and water infiltration on working lands, reduce soil erosion, and protect ground and surface water resources.
Fritsche and Olson said that the next funding deadline to work toward would be an Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) batching window coming up in May.
“NRCS is interested in communicating with watershed councils like yours because you are already coming together around conservation in your watershed, and public funding concentrated to a watershed has a higher potential to show faster results,” Fritsche told the group. “Carbon sequestration through improvements in soil health is real, and agriculture can play a big role in helping with climate change mitigation.”
Olson echoed Fritsche’s comments.
“The intention behind passage of the IRA is to make a big investment in agricultural solutions to climate change,” Olson said. “Through the IRA, NRCS will have $20 billion in additional funding on top of existing funding to support producers in making a difference.”
The two pointed out that the opportunity in Vernon and Crawford counties is targeted toward the 3,800 acres of cropland in Crawford County, and the 11,000 acres of cropland in Vernon County. Because the funding is being made available with a statewide screening tool, collaborations across county lines are possible.
“Our goal in administering this funding is to foster collaboration on bigger, more complex applications versus lots of little applications,” Fritsche said. “Working at the watershed scale, it will be easier to demonstrate the benefits of the funding.”
Fritsche said that the goals should be to keep water in the watershed through improved infiltration, reducing the threat of flash floods in the steep, narrow waterway. Another goal would be reduction of erosion through establishment or improvement of pastures in the watershed.
“Applications on a watershed scale will require group collaboration around a set of goals, and can include a variety of practices implemented on multiple tracts of land,” she told the group. “One thing to also keep in mind is that successful applications will require private sector involvement providing technical expertise.”
Olson told the group that more information would be forthcoming about how exactly the funding will be made available. He said that the current thinking is that it will be pushed out through existing NRCS programs like EQIP, Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Rural Conservation Partners Program (RCPP).
Climate smart practices
“Generally, Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry (CSAF) is a pool of funding that prioritizes a subset of conservation practices critical to climate change mitigation,” Olson explained. “These practices focus on building soil health, improving nitrogen management, improving livestock waste management systems, enhancing grazing management, and improving habitat.”
Fritsche provided a list of the CSAF core practice list:
• Anaerobic digesters
• Conservation cover
• Conservation crop rotations
• Contour buffer strips
• Cover crops
• Field borders
• Filter strips
• Forage and biomass plantings
• Grassed waterways
• Nutrient management
• Prescribed grazing
• Residue management
• Riparian forest buffer
• Silvopasture establishment
• Tree and shrub establishment
• Upland wildlife habitat
• Waste separation facility• Windbreak and Shelterbelt establishment and renovation.