National Water Quality Initiative begins second year in watershedsWritten by Saige Albert
“The NWQI is an initiative that came out late last year,” explained Nephi Cole, NRCS watershed coordinator liaison, at the Area II meeting of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts on Sept. 12. “We were under the gun in trying to develop plans and figure out how we were going to deal with the initiative, but we did it.”
Origins of NWQI
“EPA said there are 15,000 nutrient impaired waters on the U.S., and they said current nutrient controls are inadequate,” Cole said. “They also said agriculture non-point source is the leading source of water quality impairments in the U.S.”
The EPA also summarized their goals for the 319 program, which looks at nonpoint source management.
“Basically, it provides grants to the states to improve and maintain water quality through things like staffing, best management practices and partnerships, for example,” explained Cole of the program. “There has been a trend of a decrease in the amount of money available.”
In 2001, there was $237 million dollars available for 319 funding, but that number was decreased to $165 million by 2012.
“There is a big focus for EPA to find opportunities to leverage their 319 funds using NRCS conservation programs,” he continued. “They think this program is a good match.”
According to the EPA, NWQI and USDA’s conservation programs are complimentary, with shared goals and voluntary status, as well as local level partnerships.
“They view the NWQI as an opportunity to expand what they are capable of doing,” Cole said of EPA’s perspective. “To illustrate that further, EPA looked at 319 success stories of what they have done, with 30 percent specifically mentioning collaboration with USDA programs.”
“It is my personal opinion that, if we looked at them, we would find the much more than 30 percent would have NRCS and local conservation district involvement,” added Cole.
EPA continued to mention that, with growing populations and reductions in cropland, we are faced with the unique challenge of increasing production while maintaining healthy soils and watershed to continue production long-term.
“The NWQI is basically a subset of EQIP,” Cole said. “It is targeted funding on a small watershed scale.”
The scale that the program is targeted for is a 12-digit hydrologic unit code (HUC), and Cole stated that there are thousands of watersheds that size in Wyoming.
“These small watersheds need to be impaired, threatened or have a TMDL or equivalent in place,” he continued of the qualifying watersheds. “Impairments must be able to be effectively addressed through voluntary action, and that means agricultural sources.”
Ultimately, Cole noted that the long-term goal of the program was to remove streams from the 303(d) list, which identifies impaired or threatened waters.
Qualifying waters must also be impaired by one of a list of priority or eligible pollutants, which includes nutrients, sediment or turbidity, pesticides, temperature, salinity, habitat alternation or impaired biota. In response to state concerns, bacteria were also added to the list.
After watersheds qualify for the program, they are selected based on a four-step process.
“First, there is consultation with the state water quality agencies, to get everyone on the same page,” Cole said. “Next, the state technical committee consults, and the state conservationist makes a decision on the selection of the watershed.”
The state conservationist must obtain concurrence by the regional conservationist on the selection of the watershed.
“For 2012, the process was really expedited,” he added, noting that short notice forced the state to shorten the process.
“On the ground, this program looks like EQIP,” said Cole. “You use conservation practices and best management practices. There are standard practices and certain key practices the you would have to use if you are participating in the NWQI, and they would be selected n a site specific basis with local conservationists.”
“There is also a reporting goal associated with this initiative, because NRCS would like to be able to show their successes in a quantitative manner,” Cole mentioned, marking tools like the Water Quality Index for runoff from agricultural fields tool, modeling and water quality monitoring.
“The last tool will be water quality monitoring,” Cole explained, including data collected through collaborations with state and local partners.
“In 2013, partly because of feedback from Wyoming and other states, we were able to learn a lot about how we can be more effective moving forward,” Cole commented.
Some ways the program will continue to improve includes earlier and more consistent coordination with the state water quality agencies to coordinate better.
“A big push was also made to the additional pollutants, and pathogens was a big one,” said Cole. “The bacteria need to be addressed as well.”
Additionally, Cole noted that the will likely be more guidance being released in late September 2012 that will hopefully allow increased timeframes for watershed selection.
Funding levels is an additional question that remains to be seen.
“Last year NWQI was five percent of the total EQIP allocation,” he clarified. “We don’t know what it will be this coming year.”
For Wyoming, Cole said the NRCS would like to proceed with the program by taking proposals from interested watersheds.
“Rather than being agency driven, it should be form the ground up,” Cole said. “NRCS believes this will likely be a continuing, multi-year initiative.”