When USA Rice Federation and Ducks Unlimited forged a partnership nearly two years ago, it marked a milestone in the cooperation and shared interest of a farm group and a conservation organization.
Twenty-three months later, the effort has paid off in the form of a major federal grant that will benefit both rice farmers and migratory wildlife that depend on America's wetlands for survival.
The $10 million grant is part of a new and comprehensive conservation initiative administered by the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and funded by the Agricultural Act of 2014.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the approved grants from the first round of proposals to the new program on Wednesday (Jan. 14). USA Rice Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Inc., and more than 40 collaborating partners are named as part of the "Rice Stewardship Partnership – Sustaining the Future of Rice" project that was selected for support.
This project will help rice producers conserve natural resources such as water, soil and waterfowl habitat, while having long-term positive impacts on the environment and their bottom line.
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The Rice Stewardship Partnership, composed of Ducks Unlimited (DU), which serves as project lead, the USA Rice Federation (USA Rice), and 44 collaborating partners, will assist up to 800 rice producers address water quantity, water quality, and wildlife habitat across 380,000 acres in Mississippi, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas. Using remote sensing to estimate bird population carrying capacity in shallow waters and the Field-to-Market Fieldprint Calculator to monitor results over time, the partners offer several innovations to augment conservation implementation and gain broader producer participation.
Welcome news in Texas
In the Texas Rice Belt, the grant is welcome news for rice farmers in Colorado, Wharton, and Matagorda counties particularly who have been hit hard in recent years by irrigation curtailments imposed by four years of serious drought that limits water releases from the Texas Highland Lakes.
One of the partners in the Rice Stewardship Partnership is the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which is charged with providing water to communities, industry and agriculture in the Colorado River basin.
LCRA opted to request limited releases of water from the Texas Highland Lakes over the last four years in an effort to conserve what they have termed dangerously low levels of water in the reservoirs. A coalition of lower basin users including communities, county governments, farmers and ranchers, and environmental and wildlife groups have argued that limiting water releases from the lakes as proposed by LCRA has placed the burden of the drought on rural users downstream in favor of urban users in Austin and communities in Central Texas.
The Rice Stewardship Partnership represents cooperation between various groups, often with opposing viewpoints, that may help to bridge differences between various water uses along the Colorado basin by promoting conservation programs and initiatives designed to better manage natural resources in the region.
Federal officials report the RCPP application process was very competitive; less than half of all applications were awarded funding, and no proposal was fully funded. However, the USA Rice and DU national request was deemed to have significant merit, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – the agency responsible for administering RCPP – awarded the partnership a grant of $10 million, one of the largest awards given under the program.
"The Mississippi Alluvial Valley, the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, and California's Central Valley are critical landscapes for waterfowl and ranked as some of DU's top priorities for habitat conservation," said DU President and Arkansas rice producer George Dunklin.
A 2014 study conducted by DU scientists for The Rice Foundation demonstrated that rice agriculture provides 35 percent of the food resources available to migrating and wintering dabbling ducks in the regions where rice is grown in the United States.
"U.S. rice farms are valuable, not just for the nutritious commodity they produce and their positive impact on the economy, but also as important contributors to the entire ecosystem, and today's announcement from NRCS and USDA recognizes that fact," said USA Rice Federation Chairman Dow Brantley, an Arkansas rice farmer. "Wildlife and waterfowl depend on our farms as much as any of us do."
Established in the 2014 farm law, the RCPP competitively awards funds to conservation projects designed by collaborating partners.
"RCPP provides an opportunity for locally driven partnerships to work side by side with local Conservation Districts and NRCS to accelerate conservation efforts and achieve measurable progress," said NRCS State Conservationist for Arkansas Mike Sullivan.
"The USA Rice Federation, Ducks Unlimited, and all of our partners commend the USDA for their vision in creating partnership-driven conservation initiatives, and we especially appreciate each of the six state NRCS offices who were instrumental in crafting a competitive proposal," said Betsy Ward, President & CEO of USA Rice. "This is a giant step forward for conservation in ricelands with many more steps to come."
"We applaud the many rice producers who integrate extra conservation measures into their rice production to maintain water quality and provide much-needed waterfowl habitat," said USDA NRCS Chief Jason Weller. "The partnership between DU, USA Rice, and USDA offers increased technical and financial assistance to help producers accomplish these goals on their land, and the tangible benefits to farmers, the environment, and all Americans will be felt for a long time."