Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 2, 2022

Aquarium-led partnership secures $10M for water quality, farming

A crimper is attached to the back of a tractor on a farm in the Sequatchie River Valley. A relatively recent agricultural technique, crimping has been shown to reduce farmers’ input costs and improve soil quality. Recently, USDA approved funneling $10 million into a six-county region of Southeast Tennessee. This money will fuel conservation-minded improvements for landowners, including lowering the cost to rent equipment like crimpers. - Photograph provided

Tennessee is as much a patchwork quilt of farms as an intricately woven lacework of streams and rivers. Soon, farmers and the aquatic life living alongside them will reap the benefits of $10 million in federal funds to support water-friendly agricultural improvements in the rolling uplands of the state’s southeastern corner.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the allocation of more than $197 million to support Regional Conservation Partnership Programs throughout the nation. These initiatives promote coordination between USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and partnering organizations that are already engaged in conservation efforts.

Among USDA’s list of 41 approved projects this year is a five-year allocation of $10 million to fuel the Ridges to Rivers program, a conservation partnership program focused on agricultural improvements in a six-county region spanning the Sequatchie River Valley and Walden Ridge.

This federal funding matches $11.8 million already being invested in the region by more than a dozen local partnering organizations that applied to receive this funding.

While the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute served as the lead applicant, this federal funding is directed toward landowners. However, the aquarium and representatives from NRCS will meet with property owners to determine how best to allocate USDA funds toward conservation-minded improvements on local farms.

Projects approved through the conservation partnership program will promote better water quality by reducing sediment, fertilizer and bacteria flowing into the region’s streams and rivers.

The region the Ridges to Rivers program targets provides a habitat for a number of endangered species, including the Laurel Dace, a colorful minnow scientists have classified as the second most-imperiled fish east of the Mississippi River and among the top 10 most-endangered fish in all of North America.

The $10 million earmarked for the Ridges to Rivers program is the most the USDA allocated to any RCPP this year and more than double the average allotment of $4.81 million.

The availability of these funds will impact the scope of ongoing and future land and water quality improvements along the Sequatchie River Valley and Walden Ridge, says Justin Howard, the district conservationist at the NRCS field office in Pikeville.

“Targeted conservation is the best way to make a difference in the survival of threatened species, but having money to funnel to landowners is always a limit for us,” he says. “This is an opportunity to impact farmers, the environment and the species that live here.”

When RCPP funds become available in 2023, representatives from the Aquarium and NRCS will meet with interested landowners to determine which improvements they’d like to implement on their property that will simultaneously benefit the health of the watershed. Some of these “best management practices” will include:

• Creating alternate water sources that will keep cattle from entering streams to drink

• Installing fencing to keep livestock out of streams and to allow farmers to alternate fields between grazing and regrowing

• Planting critical areas in swells and high-erosion areas to diminish stormwater run-off

• Planting winter cover crops to reduce soil erosion in the rainy season and improve soil health

• Creating stream crossings in high-traffic areas to afford access to pastures without entering streams

• Building infrastructure around natural springs to limit foot traffic and minimize soil disturbance

• Planting filter strips along streams or fields to decrease erosion by slowing rainwater before it enters the water

Source: Tennessee Aquarium