On May 4, I had the pleasure of attending the White House Rural Council’s Third Annual Rural Opportunity Investment Conference. It was hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and put on by some very forward-thinking USDA staff.
The purpose of the event was to bring together those with expertise in rural development and impact investors looking to make a profit while also improving the world. We heard that the USDA has a variety of programs and resources it uses to assist with development in rural America, but even it does not have enough to meet the needs. Instead, it is looking to leverage its resources together with those of private partners that can help get much more accomplished.
To drive home the importance it places on this initiative, the event was emceed by USDA Senior Adviser Matt McKenna, and we were addressed by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan, among others. They all stressed the importance of rural America and the benefits of working in these regions. They were not just being supportive of the initiative; they were selling it.
Water resources and infrastructure were a big part of the conversation. Jason Weller, chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), gave a forceful plea to the group to take advantage of the funding his service offers. Among those programs are Conservation Innovation Grants, which are vehicles for NRCS to partner with public and private entities to accelerate innovation and adopt promising technologies. The NRCS has $20 Million to award annually, and this year it is piloting a new way of administering the program—it is concentrating on one particular area of concern in order to try to have a larger impact instead of spreading out the dollars across all initiatives. The good news for those of us in the water industry is that this year’s focus is water quality and conservation finance.
The USDA is to be commended for finding ways to bring in private partners for the public good. This conference also reinforced for me that the amount of money available for water-related projects is going to continue to increase. For solution providers looking to grow, tracking the funding could give you a roadmap to the low-hanging fruit. For those with a funding gap that needs to be filled, be mindful that there is a plethora of programs with motivated staff looking to help you meet your needs.
To all, I wish you happy hunting.