The New York City Watershed Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) serves as the capstone in the whole farm planning process for the ambitious Watershed Ag Program. USDA's Delaware County Farm Service Agency (FSA) Office has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD), the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the New York City Watershed Ag Council (WAC) to implement the highly successful program.
The Watershed Ag Program is a partnership between watershed farmers and New York City that balances pollution prevention, economic viability, and public health concerns. The program promotes voluntary whole farm planning based on scientific research and local leadership.
The Watershed Ag Program was created by New York City to avoid building a costly water filtration plant mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The City projected it would spend approximately $35 million to implement best management practices (BMPs) on 85 percent of the 400 farms in this 500,000-acre watershed. Part of this historic agreement has allowed EPA to extend New York City's filtration avoidance waiver. If New York City can demonstrate that implemented BMPs significantly maintain or improve the water quality and ensure long-range pollution prevention, EPA may relieve the city of the water filtration mandate.
The WAC immediately began work by looking at three farmland areas that contributed to water quality problems: source issues, such as barnyards; field issues concerning nutrient runoff and erosion control; and stream bank corridors. The last problem was the toughest item to address.
Until they were introduced to CREP.
ICING ON THE CAKE
Through the diligent efforts of then-New York State FSA Conservation Specialist Allien LaPierre, NRCS Resource Conservationist Paul Ray, Watershed Coordinator Gary Lamont, and WAC members Larry Beckhardt and Ed Blouin, the CREP partnership was realized and the final piece to the WAC puzzle was brought to Delaware County.
The team of Federal, State, and local personnel began defining CREP implementation goals. The group set their sights on creating 2,000 acres of Riparian Buffers and planting 3,000 acres of highly-erodible cropland to Introduced Grasses and other vegetative covers.
"CREP is viewed as the final process in a multiple barrier whole farm planning process," said Delaware FSA County Executive Director Carol Dennis. "The success of this program is a direct result of the cooperative partnership between FSA, NRCS, SWCD, WAC and DEP, but the technical planners and the farmers have made this program work."
The farming community has embraced CREP, but the acceptance did not materialize overnight. The CREP team worked tirelessly with producers to reinforce the program's goals. For example, technicians flagged proposed Riparian Buffer areas just to help farmers visualize the amount of pastureland eligible for the program. That allowed the farmers to imagine a new fence line while calculating the financial benefits of CREP.
"What we gained in improvements offset the ground we lost," said Delaware FSA County Committee Member David Holley. "I wasn't losing my valuable pasture, and 35 feet from the creek bank wasn't much ground. Plus the incentives were better."
Often, CREP rental rates and incentive payments were "icing on the cake." Many farmers involved with the Watershed Ag Programs had already established a relationship of trust with team members. The farmers realized the CREP team was not selling a program based upon a cookie cutter approach. The team members listened to the farmers' concerns, and together they developed plans that made environmental and economic sense.
CREP sold itself. Farmers in this mountainous region are good land stewards and want to preserve the water quality. They realized participating in the WAC program was the first step to improving water quality. CREP will complete the task for them.
The Delaware/Catskill Watershed is a mountainous terrain that has been farmed for centuries. Only 11 percent of the 500,000-acre watershed is cropland. Over 80 percent of the terrain is still forested.
There are 5 bicentennial farms and 15 centennial farms in the watershed. In 1900, there were over 1,200 farms in Delaware County . By 1960 the number dropped to 700, and in 1980 there were only 400 farms remaining. Today, 25 percent of the existing dairies milk fewer than 40 cows. Twenty-cow operations are not uncommon.
A significant majority of these farms are located within 50 feet of a stream. A watershed map showing just the creeks and tributaries in Delaware County resembles a bad case of varicose veins. There are streams running down every hillside and every valley has a creek or river leading to one of the five reservoirs utilized by New York City for its drinking water.
The CREP team has concentrated its focus on farms located at headwaters of sub watersheds rather than the main tributaries. The team has been successful in enrolling five or six farms along a number of streams. Once one farmer buys into the process, neighbors are also willing to try it. The Delaware County FSA Committee has been instrumental in this process. They were among the first farmers tapped by the CREP Team to try the program, and they were willing to express their opinions to friends and neighbors.
In fact, Delaware County FSA Committee Vice-Chairperson Barb Robertson and her husband Jim agreed to allow the WAC to set up a monitoring station downstream of their barnyard. Their farm was selected as an ideal monitoring site because it is the only farm in the sub watershed and is located at the headlands of the tributary.
Tests document a reduction of soluble phosphorous two years after BMPs were implemented on the farm. Phosphorous levels have stabilized. WAC will measure the benefits of CREP's implemented buffers and crossings, both of which are expected to further reduce phosphorous levels.
The CREP team's proactive conservation approach will help the WAC meet the mandates established by EPA while keeping the local agricultural economy viable. CREP is an instrumental tool in this process, and one farmers appreciate.
CREP provides cost-share assistance to install alternative water sources for livestock such as this trough.
With CREP cost-share assistance farmers fenced cattle out of streams to improve water quality.
Trees are installed on CREP contract acreage.
Thanks to NYC Watershed CREP and Riparian Buffer practice, streams again flow clear.