Ushering in a new era of conservation
This article is a joint opinion piece co-authored by Tom Vilsack and Matt Rice. Tom Vilsack serves as the 30th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Matt Rice is the director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers. This article was first published in the Sante Fe New Mexican.
Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture launched the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a new effort that will expand partnerships and boost investments in clean water, soil and wildlife conservation projects.
The concept behind the Regional Conservation Partnership Program is simple: To feed a growing global population in the face of climate change, we must ask a lot of our land and water resources. Here in the Colorado River Basin, we are faced with historic drought conditions and water supply pressures — 33 million people across the region, including farms, ranches and local communities share water from the Colorado River. These challenges also place considerable pressure on the health of rivers, streams and aquifers throughout the basin.
Conservation has never been so critical, yet no single farmer, organization or government entity has the resources to take on these enormous challenges alone.
That’s where the Regional Conservation Partnership Program comes in. The program allows the USDA to bridge the gap between those partners and leverage more support for what works in conservation. It allows nontraditional conservation stakeholders, such as companies and other for-profit groups, to jump on board with funding and other support for conservation projects designed by local partners, like farmers, ranchers and foresters. The program builds on the momentum of conservation partners already engaged right here in the region, and allows them to access more funding and technical support than they could on an individual basis.
This program is a prime example of how government can serve as a catalyst for private investment to help meet the specific needs of local communities. By elevating fresh, new approaches, offering support for proven, successful conservation efforts and bringing together a larger consortium of partners and monetary support, the program allows us to more effectively accomplish our shared goals of keeping the land resilient and water clean.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program initiative in the Colorado River Basin will demonstrate what can be achieved by combining strong partnerships, sound science and funding to solve natural resource problems at a watershed scale. These efforts will help Colorado River Basin farmers and ranchers mitigate and adapt to drought conditions and water supply disruptions by improving irrigation infrastructure and water delivery reliability, enhancing operational flexibility and irrigation water management, and adopting innovative agricultural water conservation measures that produce mutual benefits for working lands and rivers.
In addition to supporting local conservation goals, conservation investments also propel economic growth. Conservation work includes building terraces in fields and restoring wetlands, which means new local jobs. The resulting cleaner water and enhanced fish and wildlife habitat also expands opportunities for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. In the Colorado River Basin alone, the outdoor recreation economy supports 234,000 direct jobs, $3.2 billion in federal, state and local taxes, $10.4 billion in annual earnings, salaries and wages, and $26 billion in overall spending each year.
The USDA expects to invest $1.2 billion in projects across the country over the next five years. With partners investing alongside the USDA, we hope to double that investment, leveraging a total of $2.4 billion for conservation. We can’t achieve these goals without partners of all kinds — farmers, ranchers, private companies, universities, local and tribal governments, and nonprofit organizations like American Rivers — at the table providing technical assistance, brokering partnerships and mobilizing support. Together, we will forge a new era of conservation partnership that more effectively confronts the growing threats to our natural resources, keeps our land resilient and our water clean and plentiful for generations to come.