Real Farm Bill Stories: The Conservation Title and the NYC Watershed

by Challey Comer

Photo: Cross River Resevoir, courtesy of

Cross River Resevoir, courtesy of @JoshDickphoto.comConservation programs that benefit rural farmers impact urban residents of New York City (NYC) by way of watershed management for the City’s water supply.  The NYC Watershed, a system of 19 reservoirs and 3 controlled lakes spanning from the lower Hudson Valley to the northern Catskills, utilizes programs within the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill through a public-private partnership.  The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) partners with the Watershed Agricultural Council (Council), a nonprofit organization located in the NYC Watershed.  The Council works with over 1,000 landowners in an eight-county region to implement conservation practices that protect the City’s drinking water quality.  For nearly 20 years, the Council has offered voluntary programs to farmers and forest landowners with funding support from DEP and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  

In 2011, the Council’s Watershed Agricultural Program implemented 317 conservation practices at a total investment of over $3 million. Farm participants actively follow 343 Whole Farm Plans and 263 Nutrient Management Plans, a percentage of which are reviewed and updated annually.  Whole Farm Planning is a holistic approach to farm management used to identify and prioritize environmental issues on a farm without compromising the farm business. Potential risks to the water supply are identified and addressed through careful structural planning to reduce or avoid the transport of agricultural runoff into farm streams. This is important because this water eventually flows into the City's water supply reservoirs.

The Council spearheads several watershed management programs, using public monies to incentivize individuals to engage in water and land protection practices. The NYC Watershed model is internationally recognized as an effective Payment for EcoServices (PES) approach to empowering individuals on behalf of the public good. The Council’s PES combines funding from several sources including DEP, USDA and the U.S. Forest Service. In the last 20 years, the Council has spent over $130 million dollars, representing the City’s investment in water quality protection, through Council programs in agriculture, forestry, farm to market, farmer education and conservation easements. Since 1997, the City has committed over $1.5 billion to  many voluntary, watershed management programs coordinated by third parties and nonprofits. The City’s allegiance to clean drinking water on behalf of nine million New Yorkers has ultimately saved the City from building a drinking water filtration plant with an estimated construction price tag of $10 billion and another $1 million a day to operate. By engaging in this PES-public-private partnership (among the USDA, City and Council), NYC Watershed protection programs leverage the City’s funding with those available through the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, maximize on-farm benefits, and save the City water consumer from the higher costs of accessing clean drinking water.
Programs funded through the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill support the protection of the City’s watershed in several ways.  First, the Conservation Title helps fund ongoing USDA programming, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which encourages farmers to implement sustainable practices on their farms through wetlands protection and grasslands utilization.  The Council works closely with USDA staff throughout the NYC Watershed to ensure conservation practices meet national engineering standards.  The Farm Bill’s Conservation Title also provides for special program funding such as Agriculture Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Council’s Forest Stewardship Program and Economic Action Program, to name just a few.  

USDA defines AWEP as a program that, “promotes ground and surface water conservation, or improves water quality on eligible agricultural lands. The intent of AWEP is for the Federal government to leverage investment in natural resources conservation along with services and non-Federal resources of other eligible partners. Individual producers are not eligible to submit a partnership proposal.”  Since 2009, the Council has utilized over $1.3 million in federal water-farm specific funding to leverage monies from DEP. AWEP projects directly benefit watershed farms by subsidizing construction projects – such as manure storage and barnyard feeding areas impacting water quality – which a farmer could not possibly afford to remedy on his own.

A major success story in the NYC Watershed’s agricultural conservation efforts is a stream buffers initiative, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).  Buffers keep waste from cows out of streams and mitigate soil erosion from streambanks.  When CREP is implemented on a farm, it often leads to the installation of fencing to keep livestock from drinking from the stream along with an alternative water source away from an environmentally sensitive area where water quality could be impacted.  Although this concept is not the most technically-advanced approach to watershed management, its widespread application has a major benefit.  Since the program was initiated in the NYC Watershed 13 years ago, over 2,000 acres of stream buffers have been set aside, protecting water quality from streambank erosion.       

Education programs at the Council also benefit from the Farm Bill.  The Catskills region has benefitted from the increase in small farmers observed nationwide in recent years.  In order to address the needs of these beginning farmers, Council staff in the Farm to Market Program has utilized funding through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.  The Northeast Beginning Farmer Project provides guidance to regional practitioners in how to help start-up farmers find success.  With this guidance, recent initiatives including Catskills FarmLink and Catskills CRAFT have been established to grow the network of beginning farmers in the Watershed region.  

The Conservation Title in the Farm Bill benefits farmers and NYC residents alike. By providing Payment for EcoSerivces to landowners at the source where pollution problems arise allows the City to keep water clean from the start. Farm Bill initiatives also benefit farmers by providing them monetary rewards for accepting environmental practices related to water and land conservation. These federal programs also provide access to technical assistance (primarily through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service) through the Council’s Agriculture and Forestry Programs. These programs also provide for a watershed management industry that employs over 6000 DEP employees, 50 Council staff, and countless thousands through third-party contracts. DEP’s legislative team supports a strong Conservation Title because many government programs contained therein provide direct incentive payments to watershed farmers for implementing specific conservation practices that help protect NYC’s water supply.

For DEP, which is the primary funder of the Council’s Watershed Agricultural and Forestry Programs, the Farm Bill represents a valuable opportunity for accessing federal dollars to compliment and/or supplement DEP funding commitments in support of broader watershed protection efforts. By helping offset City funding commitments, Farm Bill funding benefits NYC water consumers who pay water and sewer rates, which in turn help fund DEP’s various watershed protection programs. The NYC water user can easily access one of the world’s best drinking water sources right from the tap. This Payment for EcoServices approach to watershed management benefits all involved, from watershed community to City water consumer.

For additional details on Farm Bill funding in the NYC Watershed, review the annual report of the agricultural program or visit the Council online at