The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is launching a $320-million, four-year program to address excess nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin that contribute to the large “dead zone” that is void of oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mississippi River Basin Health Watersheds Initiative, announced on Sept. 24, will leverage funding in the 2008 farm bill for voluntary conservation programs administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with state, local and private resources. It will help farmers in 12 states initiate conservation efforts to reduce nutrient runoff from farms. The states are Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Funds will be awarded on a competitive basis on local, state and federal levels. Some $50 million will be distributed through the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, $5 million through Conservation Innovation Grants and $25 million through the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program.

“USDA is going to partner with farmers to implement a range of land stewardship practices, including conservation tillage, nutrient management and other innovative practices,” says Dave White, NRCS chief.

Agricultural runoff is a leading source of excess nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin, says Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director for Environmental Defense Fund, Washington, D.C. Hopper says efforts to reduce agricultural runoff “haven’t been as geographically focused as one might like to have a real impact.” The new initiative, by focusing efforts on areas within the basin where they will produce the biggest benefit, “represents the kind of approach required to start making real progress” in improving the Mississippi River, she says.

The USDA initiative is the latest development in the administration’s ongoing efforts to address hypoxia—the dead zone—in the Gulf of Mexico and in other large bodies of water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue recommendations to help states protect waters from excess nutrients later this year.