Great Lakes Will Benefit from New Federal Program

Angler canoes on farm pond in Montcalm county, Michigan. Photo courtesy: NRCS Lynn Betts

Angler canoes on farm pond in Montcalm county, Michigan. Photo courtesy: NRCS Lynn Betts

As one of eight priority regions across the country, the Great Lakes will receive help through a new and crucial 2014 Farm Bill program that will help tackle the vexing problem of toxic algal blooms in the region. The five-year Regional Conservation Partnership Program will provide up to $2.4 billion to farmers to take specific actions to protect soil and water quality.

In the Great Lakes region, the new program’s overarching goal is to “manage nutrients and sediment on agricultural land to reduce algal blooms in the Great Lakes.” Harmful algal blooms are large, rapidly-growing areas of algae caused by manure and fertilizer flowing into rivers, streams, and the Great Lakes. Harmful algal blooms are toxic to people, pets, and wildlife—they threaten public health and the Lakes’tourism industry. In 2011, a 2,000-square-mile algal bloom in western Lake Erie could be seen from outer space.

The new partnership program will focus on funding conservation projects to prevent harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes region. The new Farm Bill program will also focus on fish and wildlife habitat degradation and excess nutrients, pesticides, and sediment in surface and ground waters.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hailed the program as a “new way to approach conservation”for how the program intends to leverage public dollars to attract private investment and partners. The program will fund projects created by private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others based on merit. The federal government expects half of the program’s $2.4 billion to come from businesses and other private sector sources.

The announcement, made in Bay City, Mich.,by Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenaw (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, is welcome news to conservation groups, including the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. The partnership program has been a priority for the coalition for several years. In a letter to Vilsack, the coalition wrote that by making the Great Lakes a priority region, the new program will be “protecting the drinking water source for millions of people, keeping beaches open and charter boats full, restoring habitat for fish and wildlife, and helping to address one of the biggest problems facing the Great Lakes today.”

This is a great step forward in the fight for environmental conservation, and in particular, the restoration of the Great Lakes.

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