The Gulf of Mexico Initiative, launched a year ago, is a three-year, $50 million program designed to clean seven watersheds that feed into the coastal waters. About $8 million is already under contract, and the agency is feverishly working to nail down deals with other farmers to build fences, terraces or buy equipment to change farming practices — all methods designed to decrease nutrient runoff that deprives the water of life-giving oxygen.
Shortly before the oil spill, NRCS put together a $100 million program through which it bought conservation easements in the Everglades. In many cases, the contracts allowed landowners to continue to graze livestock on the easement, a win-win for all, Weller said. The program was so popular, the agency put another $100 million in it in 2011, and plans to invest a similar amount this year.
Such partnerships that allow landowners to voluntarily do conservation while sharing the costs with government put the NRCS in a good spot to get projects going in the Gulf, where 86 percent of the land is privately owned, said Weller, whose first day as the agency's new chief was Tuesday.
Now, as the new council, made up of local, state and federal agencies, comes together next week to identify more projects and how to spend millions of dollars of a BP settlement, the agency will be one of many that will likely get an inflow of cash just as traditional revenue streams are on the Congressional cash-cutting chopping block.
"What we have is a delivery capacity," Weller said. "If they want to invest in a private land approach, we can get projects going immediately."
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