A Guide to the Soil & Water Resources Conservation Act Requirements, Process, and Compliance

The Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) plays a crucial role in protecting the nation's precious soil and water resources, guiding the U.S. Department of Agriculture's conservation efforts, and ensuring the long-term sustainability of American agriculture. This comprehensive guide delves into the key aspects of the RCA, exploring its legislative history, regulatory scope, and compliance requirements. Readers will gain a deep understanding of the RCA's standards and limitations, monitoring and reporting obligations, and enforcement mechanisms. The guide also highlights the various assistance programs and incentives available to support conservation efforts and promote environmental stewardship. By providing a wealth of practical information and expert insights, this resource aims to empower stakeholders to effectively navigate the RCA's complexities, make informed decisions, and contribute to the responsible management of our shared natural resources.


Key Details of the Soil & Water Resources Conservation Provisions

Issuing Agency: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Year Established: 1977
Last Amended: 2008
Statutory Authority: Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act
Primary Legal Reference: Title 16, United States Code, Sections 2001-2009

What is Soil & Water Resources Conservation Act?

The Soil and Water Resources Conservation Provisions (RCA) is a federal law that operates within the broader framework of the United States' efforts to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. The RCA was enacted in 1977 to address the need for better coordination and planning in the management of soil, water, and related resources on private lands. The Act requires the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to assess the status and trends of soil, water, and related resources on non-federal lands, and to develop a national conservation program to guide USDA conservation activities.

The RCA's primary goals are to:

  1. Preserve and improve the condition of soil, water, and related resources
  2. Promote the sustainable use of these resources
  3. Ensure the continued productivity of American agriculture

The USDA, particularly the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is responsible for administering and implementing the RCA. The Act has undergone several amendments since its inception, with the most recent significant changes occurring in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.

The RCA achieves its goals by requiring the USDA to:

  • Appraise the status and trends of soil, water, and related resources on non-federal lands every ten years
  • Develop a national conservation program based on the appraisal
  • Provide Congress with an annual evaluation report on program effectiveness

The Act applies to all non-federal lands within the United States, including private agricultural lands, forestlands, and rangelands.

What does the Soil & Water Resources Conservation Provisions protect?

The Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act protects soil, water, and related resources on non-federal lands in the United States. These resources are protected from degradation, depletion, and unsustainable use through the RCA's requirement for periodic assessments and the development of a national conservation program. The Act promotes the conservation and improvement of these resources by guiding USDA conservation activities and ensuring that conservation efforts are coordinated, effective, and responsive to the nation’s long-term needs.


Section 6 - Appraisal of Soil, Water, and Related Resources

The main purpose of Section 6 of the Soil & Water Resources Conservation Act is to require the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct a comprehensive appraisal of the soil, water, and related resources of the Nation1. The appraisal must evaluate the current and prospective conditions of these resources, including their capacity to meet present and future demands for various purposes such as agricultural production, environmental protection, and recreational use2. The section establishes a periodic appraisal process, with reports to be completed at five-year intervals3. These appraisals are significant for developers, environmental consultants, and other stakeholders as they provide valuable information on the status, trends, and challenges related to soil and water resources, which can inform project planning, site selection, and conservation strategies. The appraisal reports may also identify priority areas for conservation, restoration, or development, as well as potential conflicts between different resource uses4. To comply with this section, stakeholders should review the most recent appraisal report and consider its findings and recommendations in their project plans and environmental assessments.


Regulatory Standards & Limitations

The Soil & Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) and its implementing regulations establish various standards and limitations to protect soil and water resources. These include:

  • Soil erosion limits: The RCA sets maximum allowable soil erosion rates for different land types and uses, based on factors such as soil type, slope, and climate.
  • Water quality standards: The RCA establishes water quality criteria for surface and groundwater, including limits on pollutants such as sediment, nutrients, and pesticides.
  • Conservation practice standards: The RCA requires the use of specific conservation practices, such as terracing, cover cropping, and riparian buffers, to minimize soil erosion and protect water quality.

These standards are implemented through a combination of voluntary conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and regulatory requirements for activities that receive federal funding or permits. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is responsible for developing and updating the technical standards for conservation practices, while enforcement is shared among various federal and state agencies.

Monitoring, Reporting & Recordkeeping Obligations

Under the RCA, regulated entities are required to monitor, report, and maintain records on their soil and water conservation activities. These obligations include:

  • Soil erosion monitoring: Landowners must regularly assess and document soil erosion rates on their property, using standardized methods and tools provided by the NRCS.
  • Water quality monitoring: Entities engaged in activities that may impact water quality, such as construction or agriculture, must monitor and report on water quality parameters, such as turbidity, nutrients, and pesticides, according to permit requirements.
  • Conservation practice implementation records: Landowners participating in voluntary conservation programs must maintain detailed records of the conservation practices implemented, including dates, locations, and specifications.
  • Annual reporting: Regulated entities must submit annual accounts to the appropriate agencies, summarizing their monitoring data, conservation activities, and compliance status.

These monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements are essential for ensuring compliance with RCA standards, tracking progress towards conservation goals, and informing future policy decisions.

Enforcement Actions & Penalties

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other relevant agencies conduct inspections and audits to monitor compliance with the RCA. These may include:

  • Routine inspections: Regular, scheduled inspections of regulated entities to assess compliance with RCA standards and permit conditions.
  • Targeted inspections: Focused inspections of entities with a history of non-compliance or those engaged in high-risk activities.
  • Complaint-driven inspections: Investigations triggered by citizen complaints or reports of potential violations.

During inspections, regulated entities are required to provide access to their facilities, records, and personnel, and to cooperate with inspectors. Entities have the right to be present during inspections and to receive copies of inspection reports.

Violations of the RCA can result in various penalties, depending on the nature and severity of the offense. These may include:

Penalty TypeDescriptionExample ViolationsFactors Influencing Severity
Administrative penaltiesFines or orders issued by the agency, without court involvementFailure to maintain records, minor exceedances of soil erosion limitsCooperation of the violator, history of compliance, environmental harm
Civil finesMonetary penalties imposed through court proceedingsSignificant exceedances of water quality standards, failure to implement required conservation practicesDegree of environmental harm, economic benefit of non-compliance, ability to pay
Criminal chargesProsecution for willful or knowing violations, resulting in fines or imprisonmentIntentional falsification of records, repeated and severe violations with substantial environmental harmIntent, criminal history, cooperation with investigators

Compliance Assistance & Regulatory Incentives

Several programs and resources are available to help entities understand and comply with the RCA:

  • Technical assistance: The NRCS provides free, confidential technical assistance to landowners, including site assessments, conservation planning, and design and implementation support for conservation practices. Interested parties can contact their local NRCS office for more information.
  • Guidance documents: The NRCS publishes a range of guidance documents, including conservation practice standards, technical notes, and handbooks, which provide detailed information on RCA requirements and best practices. These resources are available on the NRCS website.
  • Training and workshops: The NRCS and partner organizations offer regular training sessions, workshops, and webinars on RCA compliance, conservation planning, and related topics. Upcoming events are listed on the NRCS website and through local conservation districts.
  • Financial incentives: Various cost-share, grant, and loan programs are available to help landowners implement conservation practices and comply with RCA requirements. These include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) program. Eligibility criteria and application processes vary by program and state, and interested parties should contact their local NRCS office for more information.
  • Voluntary partnership programs: The NRCS also offers voluntary partnership programs, such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, which provide technical and financial assistance for collaborative conservation projects. These programs often involve multiple stakeholders, such as local governments, conservation districts, and non-profit organizations, and may offer additional benefits such as streamlined permitting or regulatory flexibility in exchange for commitments to superior environmental performance.


Regulatory History & Upcoming Changes

The Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) was initially enacted in 1977 as part of the Food and Agriculture Act.5 The RCA aimed to ensure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had the necessary tools and resources to assess and protect the nation's soil, water, and related resources.6

Key amendments to the RCA include:

  1. Food Security Act of 1985: This amendment mandated the creation of a National Conservation Program, which required the USDA to conduct periodic appraisals of soil, water, and related resources.7

  2. Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990: This amendment expanded the scope of the RCA to include an evaluation of the environmental and economic impacts of conservation practices.8

  3. Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996: This amendment required the USDA to develop a priority areas program to target conservation efforts in areas with significant environmental concerns.9

These amendments have strengthened the RCA's ability to assess and address conservation needs, while also emphasizing the importance of targeted, data-driven conservation efforts.

As of 2023, there are no significant proposed rules, regulatory changes, or pending legislation related to the RCA. However, the USDA continues to conduct periodic appraisals and updates to its conservation programs in accordance with the RCA's requirements.10 Regulated entities and interested parties should stay informed by regularly checking the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) website and subscribing to relevant agency mailing lists.

Additional Resources

  1. Full text of the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act: Access the complete text of the RCA, including all amendments, through the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) website. Link

  2. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) RCA website: The NRCS maintains a comprehensive website dedicated to the RCA, which includes agency guidance documents, fact sheets, and the latest conservation appraisals and reports. Link

  3. USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) publications on conservation programs: The ERS conducts research and analysis on the economic impacts of conservation programs, including those implemented under the RCA. Their publications provide valuable insights for regulated entities and policymakers. Link

  4. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation: This peer-reviewed scientific journal publishes research articles, case studies, and policy analyses related to soil and water conservation, providing a valuable resource for understanding the latest developments in the field. Link

  5. Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) reports: The CEAP is a multi-agency effort to quantify the environmental effects of conservation practices and programs, including those implemented under the RCA. The project's reports provide detailed assessments of conservation outcomes and help guide future policy decisions. Link

These resources offer a comprehensive overview of the RCA, its implementation, and its impact on soil and water conservation efforts in the United States. They serve as valuable references for regulated entities, policymakers, and researchers seeking to understand and comply with the RCA's requirements.


  1. 16 U.S.C. § 2005(a)

  2. 16 U.S.C. § 2005(b)

  3. 16 U.S.C. § 2005(c)

  4. 16 U.S.C. § 2005(d)

  5. Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act, Pub. L. No. 95-192, 91 Stat. 1407 (1977). Link

  6. 16 U.S.C. § 2003 (2023).

  7. Food Security Act of 1985, Pub. L. No. 99-198, 99 Stat. 1354 (1985).

  8. Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-624, 104 Stat. 3359 (1990).

  9. Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-127, 110 Stat. 888 (1996).

  10. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (2023). Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA). Link

Keep up with the latest

A Note to Our Readers: We hope this guide is a valuable resource in helping you better understand the RCA. However, it's not a substitute for professional advice and doesn't cover every scenario. Always consult with regulatory bodies and professionals for the most current advice and project-specific guidance.