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The Locally Led Process and the Watershed Protection Program

A Strategy For The 21st Century

This report reflects a recommended strategy, to the Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) regarding the future of the agency's watershed program. The recommended strategy was developed by an NRCS Quality Improvement Team.


Secretary Ezra Taft Benson wrote in the 1955 yearbook of Agriculture, "The new watershed protection program (PL-566) clearly should not be looked upon as some miracle coming out of the federal treasury. If it is successful, it will be because local people working through their organizations with the help of their state government assume and maintain principle initiative." Secretary Benson was right and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program has been successful. Together the programs authorized under PL-566 and PL-534 have resulted in substantial contributions being made to environmental improvement, economic development, flood reduction, and in the development of an infrastructure on which many rural people and communities depend.

As the next millennium approaches, we have the opportunity to build upon our past success and learn from our failures in the re-dedication of our efforts to conserve the land. Our future watershed program will form the foundation upon which locally-led conservation is built and supported by NRCS.

The "watershed" is the unit of landscape and framework around which to think together about the land and its role in peoples lives. It provides the perspective of how people and natural systems inter relate to affect the landscape as a whole and is the basis for evaluating progress towards achieving conservation objectives established by the community.

Recently NRCS published A Geography of Hope that recognizes the importance of the participation between the private landowner and the land in achieving multiple benefits from the land. The goals encompassed by the recommended strategy for the NRCS watershed program are an integral part of that "hope"--a hope that we can build economically and environmentally sustainable communities for ourselves and for our children.

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NRCS is embarking on a major effort, called locally-led conservation, which is an extension of the agency's traditional assistance to individual farmers and ranchers for planning and installing conservation practices for soil erosion control, water management and other purposes. It means that local people, generally with the leadership of conservation districts along with NRCS technical assistance, will assess their natural resource conditions and needs; set goals; identify ways to solve resource problems; utilize a broad array of programs to implement solutions; and measure their success. This voluntary effort is fostered by the conservation provisions of the 1996 Farm Bill and is designed to better tailor the Agency's assistance to meet the needs of individuals and communities served.

A desire for assistance is clearly expressed through the growth of a nationwide "watershed movement." Local people want to protect and be stewards of their land and water resources. They are creating lake, river and watershed associations all across the country because they recognize that they need to work together to plan and implement solutions to their natural resource problems. Local people understand that what they do on their land can affect others and that they need to "think globally and act locally." Just as farmers and ranchers and small communities have sought out NRCS's technology and planning expertise for the past 60 years, watershed associations, conservancy districts, irrigation districts, watershed improvement districts and other groups are seeking the best available science and planning skills to assist them to assess their natural resource conditions and help local people identify solutions to their problems.

This strategy outlines actions the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) proposes to redirect its watershed program to serve as an integral component of locally-led conservation.

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The NRCS administers a national watershed program which is integral to USDA's National Conservation Program. Through this program, NRCS assists States, local units of government, tribes, and other sponsoring organizations to address water-related and other natural resource issues, to conduct studies, to develop watershed plans, and to implement resource management systems. The program includes projects carried out under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (PL 83-566) and the eleven watersheds authorized under the Flood Control Act of 1944 (PL 78-534). Over 2000 plans covering 160 million acres in watersheds in every State, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Basin have been completed or are underway. Land treatment measures have been applied to more than 30 million acres. More than 15,000 individual measures have been installed and have resulted in substantial contributions to environmental improvement, economic development, and social well-being. Many people and communities have come to depend upon the infrastructure established by this program.

The authorized purposes for these NRCS-assisted watershed projects are wide-ranging - watershed protection, flood prevention, agricultural water management, water based recreation, fish and wildlife habitat improvement, ground water recharge, water quality management, and municipal and industrial water supply. However, program objectives have changed over time in response to legislative direction, environmental concerns, and changing social values. The objectives of many of the original projects were to reduce flooding, improve drainage, and increase irrigation efficiencies. In the 1960s, high priorities were placed on projects that provided jobs to combat poverty and encourage rural development; many of these projects involved establishing recreation areas. In recent years projects have focused on land treatment measures to solve natural resource problems, such as substandard water quality and loss of wildlife habitat.

Initial funding, including technical and financial assistance, for PL 78-534 projects was $2 million in 1947 and $5 million for PL 83-566 projects in 1954. By the early 1980's, the combined funding for PL 78-534 and PL 83-566 increased to nearly $300 million. However, by fiscal year 1996 combined funding for program activities had decreased to $100 million (of which only $50 million is available for financial assistance).

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As NRCS moves conservation into the next century, its agenda for conserving, improving and sustaining natural resources is founded upon an agency vision - "People in Partnership with a Healthy Land."

Consistent with this vision, NRCS will administer its watershed program to support:

"Local people leading a voluntary, coordinated, and integrated watershed approach to address natural and human resource conservation needs."

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Guiding Principles

As NRCS expands and strengthens its national watershed program, the Agency will be guided by the following principles in assisting local communities to plan and implement their watershed projects:

  • support locally-led comprehensive, science-based planning and implementation
  • emphasize and encourage broad base local leadership
  • coordinate with State priorities and programs
  • work to improve environmental quality and local economies
  • build on the successes of the NRCS watershed program
  • assist local people to focus on the prevention of problems to achieve natural resource sustainability
  • complement the 1996 Farm Bill initiatives
  • expand and strengthen partnerships including those with the private sector
  • maximize the effectiveness of the watershed program by leveraging with other funds
  • use performance indicators, developed in cooperation with watershed districts and others, that capture social, environmental, and environmental benefits of watershed health

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NRCS will utilize its watershed program, along with the above "Guiding Principles," to assist in watershed-based natural resource planning as requested by sponsors. The lessons learned through the implementation of PL 78-534 and PL 83-566 - the ability to work with private landowners and communities to plan and install conservation measures on a watershed scale - forms the foundation upon which locally-led conservation is built and supported by NRCS. The "watershed" is the unit of landscape and framework around which to think together about the land and its role in peoples' lives. It provides the perspective of how people and natural systems inter-relate to affect the landscape as a whole and provide a basis for program accountability. In addition to expanding its planning assistance, NRCS will continue to modernize the program consistent with current environmental, social and economic demands.

This watershed assistance strategy has four goals:

  1. Expand and strengthen NRCS assistance and technical capacity in support of locally-led watershed planning and implementation;

  2. Support the implementation of priority watershed projects to reduce the existing Federal unfunded commitment;

  3. Assist NRCS watershed project sponsors to revitalize project infrastructure;

  4. Amend PL 83-566 legislation and change policies to include new concepts and principles.

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Goal One: Expand and strengthen NRCS assistance in support of locally-led watershed planning and implementation

The NRCS will support a local planning process that uses the best-available science for solving problems. This process will be led by local citizens working with government entities and other partners to solve and prevent future local resource problems through a voluntary, incentive-based approach. The size of the planning area will be commensurate with the local interest, issues and needs. The comprehensive plans resulting from this process will describe conditions, needs, alternative solutions including preventive actions, and decisions. The plans will serve as the vehicle to guide individual efforts within watersheds to assure that conservation activities are focused and coordinated on the highest priority concerns so that investments are made wisely. Watershed plans resulting from the locally-led process will provide the basis for communities, states, and others to embrace and underwrite a broad array of resource treatment measures and programs that benefit entire watersheds. Such plans may or may not include a financial agreement with NRCS.

The NRCS niche in this watershed-based approach is to:

  • serve as the catalyst and facilitator for locally-led watershed planning;
  • advocate the health of the land and water;
  • provide natural resource information and assessments;
  • provide overall planning assistance to local communities, through conservation districts and other groups;
  • provide financial assistance through its various programs;
  • assist in building local capacity for locally-led decision making on a watershed basis; and
  • assist sponsors in identifying sources of funding to implement solutions.

NRCS's recent reorganization focused on several key areas related to placing technical authority and responsibility and expertise closer to the local level. Emphasis was placed on developing partnerships, and establishing the NRCS Institutes and Centers as the primary vehicles for technology development, acquisition and transfer in a range of areas that include watershed science and social sciences. The agency will capitalize on the strengths that reorganization has engendered and focus attention on supporting locally-led watershed planning efforts.

Action 1. Seek Financial Support - NRCS will pursue additional financial support for watershed planning to support locally-led watershed conservation efforts in 500 priority watersheds. State Conservationists will select priority watersheds based upon recommendations and interest of local work groups and through consultation with State conservation agencies, the State Technical Committees, other Federal and State entities, watershed sponsors, and others.

Action 2. Plan Independent of Implementation - All plans will be prepared by local groups with assistance from involved agencies. Implementation of the plans will not necessarily be funded through the NRCS programs. Local efforts will be supported to seek out funding from all allowable sources. Additional efforts may be needed to qualify for funding from specific programs.

Action 3. Expand and Strengthen Partnerships - Strengthen, through capacity building, agreements, contracts and other mechanisms, partnerships with conservation districts, State, Federal and local agencies, technical experts, tribal councils, and those who represent watershed interests in the private sector.

Action 4. Strengthen NRCS Technical Capacity - Maximize the use of the National Science and Technology Consortium to continue developing and transferring the necessary science-based technology to field offices, natural resources conservation planning teams, other government agencies, and private organizations.

  • Providing technical coordination. NRCS will partner with State and Federal agencies, facilitate statewide and watershed level coordination, provide watershed planning and technology support, and seek funding and technical resources for locally-led efforts.
  • Staffing additional planning teams. State and multi-State interdisciplinary resource technical teams and natural resource planning teams will be created and/or staffed with expertise necessary to assist a locally-led planning effort to develop comprehensive, science-based plans. They will also draw on expertise from field offices and other agencies.
  • Training field and planning team personnel. NRCS will identify and address additional training needs of personnel, such as public participation and facilitation, group problem solving, grant writing, and principles of ecosystem management.

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Goal Two: Support the implementation of priority watershed projects to reduce the existing Federal unfunded commitment

NRCS is currently providing assistance with implementing more than 500 active PL 83-566 and PL 78-534 watershed projects. The Federal unfunded commitment (the Federal dollars, as identified in watershed plans, that remain to be paid to install watershed measures) began in 1958 and, by the 1970's, grew to nearly $2 billion. At the end of 1996, the commitment was $881 million, having been reduced by nearly $360 million over the past two years. In addition to installing a number of priority measures, watershed project sponsors, NRCS, and other stakeholders accomplished this reduction by reviewing all remaining project measures and eliminating some of those which are no longer economically and environmentally feasible. The Agency believes that reducing the unfunded commitment to no more than $400 million will establish an appropriate level of work to have in the process of final land acquisition, permitting, design and contracting to keep the program operating efficiently.

Generally, sponsors awaiting Federal funding have made, in good faith, substantial commitments of time and money and other resources to complete the watershed projects. Under the current level of funding and distribution of funds between financial and technical assistance, a reduction in the unfunded commitment is not possible. Major concerns are now surfacing about how the Federal government will honor its current commitment to provide funds.

This goal focuses on special efforts to reduce the number of projects on the unfunded commitment list by selecting and revising as appropriate, scheduling, and completing priority projects; seeking additional funding; and improving efficiencies in program implementation.

Action 1. Prioritize Implementation - NRCS Regional Conservationists will work with State Conservationists, project sponsors, and other local watershed interests (including Federal and State agencies and others) to prioritize PL 83-566 and PL 78-534 implementation projects. Projects that provide the highest net environmental, social, and economic benefits will receive the highest priority. All projects will be evaluated to ensure that every effort has been made to use acceptable bio-engineered practices, non-structural measures, or other innovative alternatives, where appropriate.

Action 2. Seek Additional Financial Resources - NRCS, working with its partners, will seek increased funding to help achieve the objective of reducing the Federal unfunded commitment to $400 million by the year 2002. In addition, the agency will work together with watershed sponsors to obtain funds from other available sources to assist in implementation.

Action 3. Complete Priority Projects - Regional Conservationists will develop a plan, based on the priorities identified in Action 1, to complete or eliminate 55 percent of the unfunded commitment in their regions by the end of fiscal year 2002. The plan will include ensuring that design and construction staffs/units are efficiently staffed with the needed expertise to implement any structural components of the project plans.

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Goal Three: Assist watershed project sponsors to revitalize NRCS-assisted project infrastructure

Many of the PL 78-534 and PL 83-566 projects are nearing the end of their evaluated life. (It is estimated that 75 percent of the structural measures are designed with a 50-year evaluation life.) Approximately 5,000 of the installed floodwater retarding structures are at least 30 or more years old. More than 70 percent of all structures were built before the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 was fully implemented and thus, may not have considered all environmental effects. Some watershed project measures installed need repair, rehabilitation, replacement, or decommissioning. In May 1990, an interagency task force concluded that, by the year 2000, approximately 2,000 structures will require significant work. Total costs for this work was estimated at $750 million - $125 million for technical assistance and $625 million for construction (adjusted to 1997 dollars).

These measures are an integral part of the infrastructure on which many rural communities and people depend for economic stability and a quality life. Lakes are sources of water for livestock, fish and wildlife, irrigation, recreation, cities, and rural areas. Farming operations and property development have been designed based upon the protection provided by floodwater retarding structures. The application of land treatment measures under PL 78-534 and PL 83-566 has greatly improved the health of the land, lakes, and estuaries, as well as enhanced agricultural productivity.

Since the 1950's, local sponsors have signed agreements under which they assumed the responsibilities of operating, maintaining and protecting project measures. Over time, the areas surrounding the structures have changed. Populations have grown. Floodplains have been developed. Upstream land use has changed. Sediment pools have filled. Flood pool capacities have decreased. Structural components and vegetated measures have deteriorated. Federal and State dam safety regulations have changed. In some cases, structural measures have served their purpose. Clearly, local sponsors and other project stakeholders will have to eventually address the environmental, public safety, liability, social, economic, and funding issues that have come from these changes.

Continued deterioration of the $8.5 billion infrastructure established by PL 78-534 and PL 83-566 projects will have a major negative effect on the economies and living conditions in rural America. The magnitude of the problems will increase as the infrastructure continues to age, unless actions are initiated immediately to sustain these systems.

Action 1. Encourage and support State funding initiatives - NRCS will work with conservation districts, State conservation agencies, watershed sponsors, and others to obtain State funding for infrastructure enhancement, including changes needed to meet State dam safety requirements, accelerate needed maintenance, and replace components that have exceeded their expected life.

Action 2. Support comprehensive planning in completed NRCS-assisted watersheds - NRCS will work with local sponsors to provide comprehensive planning assistance for completed watershed projects to meet environmental, social, and safety needs and opportunities. Planning efforts will address all infrastructure and resource opportunities and needs in the watershed.

Action 3. Seek additional funding - NRCS will seek additional funding to provide technical and financial assistance to watershed sponsors for rehabilitation (work in excess of operation and maintenance required to repair, restore, or improve a practice), upgrading to current standards, or decommissioning of 300 flood reduction structures by the year 2002.

Action 4. Explore the establishment of a revolving fund for operation and maintenance and rehabilitation - NRCS will participate with States in exploring the feasibility of establishing a revolving fund for major maintenance and repairs of existing and new structures. Legislation may be needed to carry out this action.

Action 5. Revise policy - To provide more immediate attention to current critical needs, NRCS proposes the following policy revisions, which will remain effective until a State's revolving funds are fully operational:

  • Provide financial assistance for emergency repairs required by a catastrophe.
  • Provide NRCS technical assistance for upgrading structures to meet current dam safety requirements.
  • Restrict development in the downstream floodplain to outside the 100-year flood line or outside of structure breach routing boundaries, whichever is greater.
  • Revise NRCS technical criteria to address structural rehabilitation needs.

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Goal Four: Amend PL 83-566 legislation and change policies to include new concepts and principles

Existing PL 83-566 legislation allows a great deal of flexibility and can adapt to many changing needs. There are some legislative and policy changes, however, that will further increase flexibility for project implementation purposes and embrace a wider range of stakeholders.

Action 1. Seek Legislative Changes - Among these changes are:

  • Provide up to 65 percent cost share assistance, based on the total project cost, to local organizations for implementing works of improvement (Same level as established in the Watershed Resource Development Act for the US Army Corps of Engineers program);
  • Authorize the Secretary to provide up to 90 percent cost sharing of total project costs to limited resource communities, of 10,000 or less, for implementing works of improvement;
  • Provide for an exception to the 20 percent agricultural benefit requirement;
  • Provide appropriate authority to carry out rehabilitation activities;

Action 2. Revise Policy - Over time, the policies and procedures which NRCS has developed have tended to limit the ability of the watershed programs to meet changing needs. There are some policy changes which will restore the necessary flexibility to implement the agency's vision:

  • Clarify the applicability of the Water Resource Council's Principles and Guidelines to future PL 83-566 planning;
  • Develop criteria for project funding which encourages use of non-Federal funds for implementation;
  • Eliminate the policy that flood control be an essential purpose for projects;
  • Encourage the use of wetland and riparian area restoration;
  • Expand the list of eligible project sponsors to include nonprofit organizations;
  • Clarify that "works of improvement" can include land treatment and other non-structural practices;
  • Ensure that all benefits, including environmental, economic and social, are considered in addition to benefit/cost ratio calculations;
  • Streamline the current watershed planning process; and
  • Require zoning below dams to limit floodplain development to that compatible with floodplain uses.

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