Idaho: Pumpers look to CREP for help

By Cindy Snyder
Ag Weekly correspondent

Aug. 21, 2004

BUHL, Idaho -- Using the Conservation Reserve Program to set aside ground-water acres isn't a new idea in Idaho, but it is an idea that is gaining ground.

Several program managers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., along with Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo were in southern Idaho this week to discuss if and how the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program might be used to entice ground-water pumpers to set aside land to conserve water.

The Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., has proposed an Irrigated Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program for Blaine, Elmore, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln and Minidoka counties. These are the counties where junior ground-water pumpers are facing possible curtailment if a settlement cannot be reached with senior spring users.

That plan also includes two critical ground-water management areas: the South West Irrigation District in Cassia and Twin Falls counties and Cinder Cone Butte Critical Ground Water Management Area in Elmore County.

An initial enrollment of 20,000 acres is envisioned with the program eventually growing to 40,000 to 50,000 acres. The Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., proposed a payment of $100 per acre with $50 to $75 of that coming from the federal program, $15 to $25 coming from the state and $10 to $15 coming from third-party payments. Under CREP, states are required to provide a 20 percent in-kind match through cash or technical services.

Under the proposal, pumpers would receive the CREP payments to fallow their ground but would not lose their water rights.

John Johnson, a deputy administrator for the USDA's farm programs, said he thinks the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program can be used for water conservation.

"I think we can get it done," he told about 100 farmers, Idaho legislators and spring users during a meeting in Buhl on Wednesday. The meeting capped a two-day tour of both farms and aquaculture facilities in southern Idaho.

The Conservation Reserve Program, a sister program, was developed more than 20 years ago as a set-aside program for highly erodible land. Rental rates in Idaho average about $38 an acre and are based on dryland rental rates. That low rental rate has been a barrier for ground-water pumpers who have invested money into pumps and sprinkler irrigation systems.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, on the other hand, provides flexibility to states to develop programs that target specific needs at the local or state level. The 2002 Farm Bill specifically includes language that allows CREP to address water conservation issues, Johnson said.

One of the biggest obstacles Johnson sees with developing a CREP for irrigated agriculture in Idaho is that the program will have to be structured so that the government can identify, quantify and monitor water conservation to the aquifer to justify using taxpayer dollars to pay the higher irrigated rental rate.

Across the nation, most CREP contracts have been written for riparian buffers and windbreaks. CREP contracts are written for 10 to 15 years and offer not only a rental payment but cost-share to help install conservation practices. States such as Minnesota and Illinois have extended CREP contracts by using state dollars to purchase 20- or 30-year easements for projects, and in some cases, even perpetual easements, Johnson said.

Mike Telford, who farms north of Paul, has long been a proponent of using the Conservation Reserve Program to conserve ground water. He said he has a piece of ground that is perfect for a program like this, but he encouraged officials who will draft the rules for the program to look at increasing the rental rate.

"We need enough money to stay afloat," he told the Farm Service Agency officials and congressional delegation. He suggested paying an irrigated rental rate of $125 to $150. "We need to design a program to put enough dollars in enough places to make it work."

Darrell Funk, who farms near Murtaugh and is part of the critical ground water management area there, encouraged officials to expand the program beyond the ground-water districts on the north side of the Snake River. He told the panel he has a well near Oakley that's dropped 100-foot since 1999. He would also like to see rental rates pegged to a water right's priority date.

"I think CREP is a win-win deal, but we need values based on the priority date," Funk said.



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