Collaboration Toolkit:
Protecting Drinking Water Sources through Agricultural Conservation Practices

Are you interested in getting more agricultural conservation practices on the ground to help protect sources of drinking water? If you’re working at the state level, a natural ally is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) State Conservationist’s office (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

This toolkit, developed as a result of extensive collaboration between members of the Source Water Collaborative and the NRCS, offers a step-by-step approach. The resources inside are useful for anyone working in source water protection: from those who already know their State Conservationist, but may be looking for new ideas, to those aiming to build a successful relationship. Each insightful tip is based on advice we received from NRCS and from state and regional source water coordinators who recently fostered effective partnerships.

Easy-to-Follow Steps

The toolkit includes simple steps for identifying common ground, opportunities, and key contacts and ideas for working with USDA at the state level.

  • Check out the Current Opportunities in the box to your right to put the toolkit to use in your state.
  • Step 1 gives a quick overview of key USDA conservation programs that help protect and improve sources of drinking water. Learn the vocabulary NRCS staff use so you’re sure to speak their language.
  • Step 2 gives tips to help you define what your source water program can offer and includes an infographic that explains the State Conservationist’s role and what can be accomplished through collaboration.
  • Step 3 links to talking points, draft agenda for first meeting, and key USDA documents to help you take the first steps to action.
  • Step 4 lists useful conservation and source water protection resources.
  • Step 5 links to key partners who can bring data, technical capabilities, useful state and local perspectives, and links to other key stakeholders.
  • Learn from your colleagues. Read the 1-page Success Stories in the box to the right.
Get Started

Understand how key USDA Conservation programs can help protect and Improve sources of Drinking Water

Source water protection results when key state and local leaders and stakeholders collaborate to encourage land use practices that protect and improve water quality – for agriculture this means systems of conservation practices. USDA has a suite of voluntary programs implemented at the state and local level that provide financial assistance to willing private landowners and operators* to protect and improve soil and water quality.

This online guide is intended to provide background information and some simple steps to help connect source water stakeholders and USDA leadership at the state and local levels, to encourage a collaborative approach to protecting and improving water quality and our sources of drinking water.

USDA Programs Help Chart

NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners and operators for their voluntary implementation of systems of conservation practices.

Some of their key partners include the National Association of Conservation Districts and the National Association of State Conservation Agencies.

FSA provides farm commodity, credit, conservation, disaster, loan, and price support programs.

  • FSA has two important programs directly protecting sources of drinking water:
    • – Source Water Protection Programs, with National Rural Water Association: Use the links to the State Rural Water Association websites to find the source water specialists listed under the “staff” tab. These specialists provide technical assistance to identify priority areas, and work with local teams to develop Rural Source Water Protection plans to protect ground water sources of drinking water through adoption of voluntary practices, including conservation practices.
    • – The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a voluntary land retirement program that helps agricultural producers protect environmentally sensitive land, decrease erosion, restore wildlife habitat, and safeguard ground and surface water. CREP is an offshoot of the country's largest private-lands environmental improvement program - the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
  • NRCS and source water protection programs share a common goal of protecting and improving water quality, and both are voluntary programs
    • – State Conservationists have decision-making authority and considerable flexibility to offer technical and financial assistance to private landowners and operators.
    • – Specific projects can bring key partners to the table to leverage resources and expertise to protect and improve watersheds that yield drinking water.

This is just a quick introduction. More details about NRCS and FSA organization and staff are provided in the following steps.

Note: This information presents just a limited view of USDA offices and programs that are relevant to source water protection efforts. A complete USDA organization chart can be found here.

Go To Step 2

Define What Your Source Water Program Can Offer

Consider reaching out to NRCS or FSA staff in your locality or state to help your source water protection efforts. In Step 1, you read a brief overview to help orient you to NRCS and FSA. Now, you'll need to consider what you (or your source water program) can offer. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • Understand NRCS/FSA programs and specific state information through a quick check of these websites: (browse by location – NRCS State Offices) and (State Offices tab).
  • Note that NRCS and FSA staff (and the private landowners and operators they work with) may be most aware of the regulatory nature of state and federal environmental programs, so it is important to convey that your focus is on opportunities to work collaboratively and voluntarily.
  • Identify a specific geographic area or project to propose for collaboration, where systems of conservation practices could help protect and improve drinking water sources. Information on conservation practices can be found here for FSA and here for NRCS.
  • Share source water data, particularly GIS maps and source water assessment results, with NRCS and FSA to identify opportunities to protect and improve water quality, and sources of drinking water. Link source water data to geographic areas where NRCS/FSA programs could protect water quality or quantity. Be aware that USDA does not share locational, ownership, or other specific information about farms, ranches or other properties – this is covered by Farm Bill Section 1619 (confidentiality of producer information). However, NRCS and FSA can share aggregated information on systems of conservation practices or acres with conservation practices.
  • Consider how source water protection partners could help promote private landowner and operator participation or document progress by monitoring water quality.

This infographic highlights what source water programs and NRCS State Conservationists can bring to a collaborative effort to protect sources of drinking water.

Click Here to Download Click to view larger image collaboration image Click to Download a PDF version of Step 2
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Take Action

NRCS and FSA are two USDA agencies that can provide technical and financial assistance for systems of conservation practices on working and retired lands. These programs provide environmental benefits including water quality. NRCS state offices will have the broadest perspective regarding available conservation programs and priorities. Key NRCS state contacts, information about Local Working Groups, and tips to help you reach out are identified below.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

Call your Assistant State Conservationist for Programs to schedule a meeting to seek guidance about working with NRCS state and local programs.

Based on feedback from NRCS, we suggest you start by contacting your Assistant State Conservationist for Programs. Some State Conservationist’s offices may suggest a different point of contact. In your initial conversation, so that you identify the right contacts, be clear that you are seeking to develop a partnership based on mutual understanding of source water concerns and NRCS programs that can protect sources of drinking water in your state. Once you have the initial conversation, they may refer you to the Resource Conservationist, or others.

Click here to see a handy organizational structure

Click here to find your State Conservationist’s office contact information

Click here for tips to help you set up a meeting. A good first step is to meet with the Assistant State Conservationist for Programs

Click here for a draft agenda and talking points for your meeting

Print this educational handout as a "leave-behind" for your meeting. It summarizes key elements of source water protection

Contact your State Conservationist’s office to let them know of your interest in attending a State Technical Committee (STC)

STCs provide advice and recommendations to State Conservationists and guidance to Local Working Groups. After you get to know your STC, you may want to give a presentation to the group. These resources will help you get started.

Click here for a quick overview of STCs

Click here for information about NRCS Local Working Groups

Click here for NRCS’s eDirective on Local Working Groups

Click here for some basic source water protection slides you might borrow from to insert into a more specific state presentation to your State Technical Committee

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Coordinate with Other Partners

Partnerships can enhance the likelihood that your project will be successful. Partners bring data, technical capabilities, useful state and local perspectives, link to other key stakeholders, and sometimes have resources to support project elements. Including key partners in your project-specific meeting with the State Conservationist or the Assistant State Conservationist for Programs can strengthen your presentation and make the discussion more productive.

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Communicate Your Success

Share Your Feedback

Let us know how you used the information in this toolkit by sending an email to the SWC. We’d like to hear your successes and continuing challenges. Your feedback will help us continue to improve this toolkit.

Email the SWC:

Promote the Toolkit

Help get the word out to source water colleagues by promoting this toolkit at your next meeting, conference, or through emails and newsletters.

  • Click here for a 2-page handout
  • Click here for PowerPoint slides that explain the toolkit (Useful for your next workshop or meeting.)
Click to Download a PDF version of All Steps Go To Step 5
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