Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the launch of a new National Water Quality Initiative committed to improving one to seven impaired watersheds in every U.S. state and territory this week. The Initiative is part of the Obama Administration's White House Rural Council, which is working in partnership with farmers, ranchers and forest owners to improve conservation of working lands in rural America. The 157 selected watersheds were identified with assistance from state agencies, key partners, and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) state technical committees. NRCS will make available at least $33 million in financial assistance to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners this year to implement conservation practices to help provide cleaner water for their neighbors and communities.

“The National Water Quality Initiative signifies a bold step by USDA to improve water quality in some very challenging watersheds,” Vilsack says. “American farmers are good stewards of the environment, and this initiative provides them with additional tools to protect and improve fish and wildlife habitat and water quality.”

Using funds from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, NRCS will provide financial and technical assistance to producers for implementing conservation practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, filter strips and terraces.

To deliver the initiative, NRCS worked in collaboration with local partners and state conservation and water quality agencies to identify watersheds where on-farm investments have the best chance to improve water quality. NRCS also will work with state and federal partners, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey, to assess results over the long term. The initiative will build on ongoing efforts in the Mississippi River Basin, Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and other landscape conservation initiatives across the Nation.

All eligible applications must be submitted by June 15, 2012 in order to be considered for this fiscal year's funding opportunity. However, NRCS accepts applications for financial assistance on a continuous basis throughout the year. Producers can view an online map or check with their local NRCS office to see if they are located in a selected watershed. This summer, NRCS will notify all applicants of the results of the competitive selection process and begin developing contracts with applicants approved for funding.

For more information about the National Water Quality Initiative, visit online http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/national/programs/financial/eqip/?&cid=STELPRDB1047761.