The Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill; PL 113-79) was signed into law this year. One of the programs funded under the Conservation Title (Title II) of the 2014 Farm Bill, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) consolidates several programs and their funding to coordinate conservation efforts by protecting water quality and clean land investment. On May 27 while in Bay City, Michigan, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) announced the start of this program, which includes a total of over $394 million for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, and close to $1.2 billion over the five-year period of the 2014 Farm Bill.

The RCPP is overseen by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at the USDA and uses the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) to oversee its functions. All projects must have the goal of helping farmers and landowners install and maintain conservation practices on their land. Those eligible to apply must be willing and have a history of addressing conservation priorities and working cooperatively with landowners, such as producer associations and groups, state and local governments, Indian tribes, farmer cooperatives, water districts, irrigation districts, municipal water or wastewater treatment facilities, or higher education institutions. Certain areas are also given priority due to their high agricultural production and need for improvements to water quality and/or quantity. These Critical Conservation Areas (CCAs) will receive 35 percent of the USDA funding and include: the Great Lakes Region, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Mississippi River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta, Prairie Grasslands Region and the Colorado River Basin. Of the remaining funding, 40 percent will go towards regional or multi-state projects and 25 percent will be directed to state-level projects.

According to Secretary Vilsack, "This is an entirely new approach to conservation . . . We're giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in what are essentially clean water start-up operations. By establishing new public-private partnerships, we can have an impact that's well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own. These efforts keep our land resilient and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism and outdoor recreation, and other industries." The program’s design includes bringing in private funds to supplement the federal ones. Private partners define the scope, plan and implement their project, and also collect data and report that information to the USDA. Largely due to the emphasis on private partnerships, the RCPP has received much bipartisan support, including support from such high-profile lawmakers as Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK).

The USDA has begun accepting proposals for this program, with the final full proposals due September 26, 2014.