7-12-2000

 

Comments of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association[1]

on the

“Upper Mississippi River Basin Conservation Act”

(H.R. 4013)

 

 

Summary Position Statement:  The Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA) strongly supports the purpose and objectives of the Act, and the important emphasis it places on sediment and nutrient reduction in this basin.  However, revisions to this promising legislative framework are needed if it is to achieve its objectives.  The UMRBA applauds the leadership of Representative Ron Kind and the Upper Mississippi River Congressional Task Force in addressing the challenge of sediment and nutrient reduction.  We would welcome an opportunity to work closely with members of Congress, the Executive Branch, and interested stakeholder groups to enhance the legislation, secure its passage, and implement its provisions.

 

 

Strengths of the Legislation

 

·      It brings national attention to the needs of the Basin by addressing the important and long-standing problem of sediment and nutrients.

·      It is watershed-based, recognizing the fundamental relationship between land management practices throughout the Basin and the quality of water resources.

·      It provides for both monitoring and implementation efforts in a single legislative package, thus recognizing the importance of science-based decisionmaking and the value of targeted management actions.

·      It focuses on voluntary approaches, recognizing that this Basin is predominantly agricultural land and that stewardship of private landowners is critical to the success of sediment and nutrient reduction efforts.

·      It expands national conservation programs, which in combination with designation of the Basin as a Conservation Priority Area, holds promise for increasing the necessary resources to address the land conservation needs in the Basin.

·      It explicitly recognizes the need for a federal, state, and local partnership approach by providing for cooperative agreements.

 

Concerns with the Legislation

 

·      Definition of Upper Mississippi River Basin

 

    Section 3(2) defines the Basin as “the watershed portion of the Mississippi River extending from Lake Itasca downstream to its confluence with the Illinois River and all tributaries upstream of that confluence, including those tributaries of the Illinois River.”  However, the Basin is typically understood to include the drainage area of the Mississippi River north of the confluence with the Ohio River, excluding the Missouri River Basin.  The definition used in H.R. 4013 would presumably exclude the Meramec River sub-basin (Missouri) and the Kaskaskia River sub-basin (Illinois) from this traditional definition.

    Properly identifying the geographic scope of the Basin is important if the program, including both monitoring and implementation efforts, is to effectively address the problem of sediment and nutrients in the Mississippi River.  It is important for decision-makers and stakeholders to recognize that many of the benefits of the program will accrue locally in small watersheds within the Basin.  While the stated purpose of the bill is to improve conditions in the Mississippi River itself, smaller streams and watersheds throughout the Basin will see improvements in water quality and habitat conditions long before we see improvements in the Mississippi River.  It is this local benefit that will ultimately be most important in garnering and sustaining public support for the program.

·      State and Local Involvement

    As currently drafted, H.R. 4013 fails to adequately recognize existing state and local programs and provide for the coordinated integration of those efforts with new and existing federal programs.  Currently, most of the water quality monitoring, watershed planning, water quality management, nonpoint source pollution, and land conservation programs in the Basin are led by state and local units of government.  By failing to properly account for these efforts, H.R. 4013 has the potential for duplicating them, particularly with regard to data collection, identification of significant nutrient and sediment sources, and prioritizing areas most in need of treatment.  Perhaps even more importantly, the ultimate effectiveness of federal investment in watershed programs lies in locally-led efforts that leverage state and local resources.  Shared goals, responsibility, and accountability result in shared success and commitment.

    States have a wide variety of watershed protection, soil conservation, and land stewardship programs.  For example, for the past 23 years, Minnesota has had a cost-share program that provides $2 million annually for technical services and installation of conservation practices.  In addition, the Local Water Resources Protection and Management Program provides state funding for counties to develop and implement voluntary water plans based on local priorities.  Similarly, the State of Missouri provides about $25 - $30 million per year from a 1/10 of one percent state sales tax to support cost-share programs for soil conservation practices, loan interest refunds for erosion control practices and equipment, and a Special Area Land Treatment (SALT) program for watershed-based projects to reduce agricultural nonpoint source water pollution.  In Wisconsin, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and county governments provide cost-share funding to private landowners for best management practices.  While H.R. 4013 need not explicitly reference these individual state programs, it should establish a framework for working with and through these kinds of long-standing and successful state efforts.

    Secondly, H.R. 4013 fails to recognize the states’ water quality responsibilities under the Clean Water Act.  Most directly related to the objectives of H.R. 4013 is the Section 319 nonpoint source pollution program, which the states administer.  In FY 2001, it is anticipated that roughly $36 million will be spent by the five Basin states for this program alone.  In addition, states may use up to 19 percent of their Clean Water State Revolving Fund capitalization grants for implementing nonpoint source projects.

    Finally, the monitoring network to be established by USGS under the provisions of H.R. 4013 must be integrated with existing state water quality monitoring efforts.  While language in Sections 103 and 104(a) of the bill recognizes this need by requiring the integration of “existing sediment and nutrient monitoring efforts” and collaboration with “State, tribal, local, and private sediment and nutrient monitoring programs,” cost-share requirements in Section 105 raise questions about how this is to be achieved.  If the nonfederal cost-share partners for the Basin-wide monitoring network are expected to be state and/or local units of government, then existing State monitoring efforts should be deemed to satisfy this requirement.  The bill would benefit from enhanced clarity on this point.
    In summary, H.R. 4013 must acknowledge, build upon, and add value to existing state and local soil and water management initiatives rather than create new potentially duplicative processes.  Stronger partnership approaches must be used to ultimately build greater capacity at the state and local level to put “conservation on the ground.”

 

·      Relationship to Other Federal Efforts

 

    The bill’s emphasis on coordination of Federal nutrient and sediment reduction efforts is welcome and could be potentially very helpful.  However, by confining the coordination responsibilities to the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior (USGS), H.R. 4013 fails to fully account for other federal programs and initiatives of direct relevance to the stated purpose of the legislation.  Most notably, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has lead responsibility for many water quality efforts related to nutrients and sediment.  While most federal water quality programs are delegated to the states, EPA plays a major leadership role.  In particular, EPA and USDA have joint responsibility for many of the initiatives in the Clean Water Action Plan, including for example, state-led watershed restoration priorities through the Unified Watershed Assessment process.  In addition, EPA is currently in the process of developing nutrient criteria on a regional basis.  States will have until 2003 (or 3 years after criteria are developed) to establish nutrient standards.
    Another example of direct relevance to the goals of H.R. 4013 is the work of the EPA-led interagency Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force.  While the states of this Basin have a variety of concerns about this initiative, there is no question that it is seeking to address many of the same issues as does H.R. 4013.  In particular, the Task Force is currently working to develop an “Action Plan” that addresses the Basin’s needs related to nonpoint pollution, land treatment, wetlands and watershed restoration, modeling, and monitoring.  In support of this effort, in 1999, the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources commissioned six scientific reports including evaluations of the flux and sources of nutrients in the Basin, and evaluations of the effects of, methods for, and economic costs and benefits of methods to reduce nutrient loads.  There is no doubt that controversy still surrounds this scientific work and the policy recommendations that are being developed.  However, it is incumbent upon any new proposed basinwide nutrient reduction program to coordinate with these and other past and current federal programs to avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts.

    In addition to the various federal efforts described above, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has on-going responsibilities related to both nutrients and sediment, including sediment transport modeling conducted under the Land Management System research program at the Waterways Experiment Station.

 

·      Technical Assistance

 

    Technical assistance to private landowners is critical to the success of land and water conservation efforts.  Yet H.R. 4013 does little to address this pressing need.  NRCS has been gradually losing staff and field level capabilities due to budget cutbacks.  This national trend will not be reversed by this single piece of Basin-specific legislation.  However, there are opportunities to enhance existing federal, state, and local technical assistance efforts if additional funding could be directed to this Basin.  As just one example, the State of Missouri has technical assistance programs through its Department of Conservation and Department of Natural Resources designed to help farmers reduce soil erosion and to promote best management practices in timber harvesting.  Any federal-level effort to enhance technical assistance should complement and enhance state programs such as those already in practice in Missouri.

    In addition, the value of the BMP research that Section 202 of H.R. 4013 authorizes could be enhanced by more explicit ties to existing technical assistance delivery mechanisms.  The bill focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of BMPs.  In reality, more efforts are needed to get landowners to adopt proven BMPs than to developing new ones.  It is an issue of technology transfer and technical assistance rather than applied research.

 

·      Targeting the Basin

 

    Increasing the national funding and acreage caps for conservation programs is important, but will not likely be a sufficient means of targeting the needs of this Basin.  The increases included in Title III for CRP, WRP, WHIP, and EQIP reflect the Clinton Administration FY 2001 budget proposals, many of which are being rejected by Congressional Appropriators.  While designating the Basin as a Conservation Priority Area may help somewhat, it is generally believed that adding priorities without also adding financial resources will be of limited value.  Again, USDA conservation programs are only one avenue for increasing on-the-ground conservation practices.  Consideration should also be given to providing cost-shared assistance directly to existing state and local programs in this Basin.

 

·      Linkage Between Monitoring/Modeling and Implementation

 

    Monitoring and modeling activities are most useful when they are designed to address specific management questions and issues.  Title I of H.R. 4013 seeks to establish a monitoring network, including guidelines for the reporting, storage, and release of data and requirements for coordination with other monitoring efforts.  Yet there is comparatively less attention given to the purpose and goals of the monitoring, other than to identify sediment and nutrients as the components to be monitored.  In contrast, the Section 201 modeling provisions are quite specific in prescribing model scales and data sets, but include no references to building upon existing modeling efforts.  How the models are to be used and by whom should inform model development.

    In the case of both the monitoring and monitoring provisions, clearer linkages between those efforts and implementation practices would be helpful.  Enhanced integration of the “science” and “action” elements of the bill would help ensure that conservation assistance is targeted in the most efficient and effective ways and that, conversely, the monitoring and modeling efforts are designed and adapted over time to support what will likely be changing management questions and needs.  In addition, greater clarity regarding the purposes and uses of the monitoring and modeling programs may help to determine the most appropriate kinds of data restrictions, which are addressed elsewhere in the bill.

 

·      Funding

 

    As currently written, H.R. 4013 does not include authorization of specific appropriations for any of the programs it seeks to establish.  Additional funding will obviously be necessary.  Identifying the specific funding that will be required to establish a monitoring network, develop models, and provide the necessary technical and financial support for conservation practices, will provide the context for scoping these efforts.  In addition, securing the necessary appropriations will likely be challenging under any circumstances, but the likelihood of success will be enhanced if specific sums are authorized.

 

·      Use of Existing Coordination Mechanisms

 

    Existing coordination mechanisms and decision-making processes should be used to the maximum extent possible.  In particular, whatever Basin-level groups and processes are established by H.R. 4013 must be integrated with the coordination and decision-making processes already in place at the basin, state, and local levels.



[1]  The Governors of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin formed the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association in 1981 to coordinate the state agencies’ river-related programs and policies and to work with federal agencies on regional issues.