Courtesy Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission
TWIN FALLS, Idaho — A federal program that pays Eastern Snake Plain farmers to retire irrigated acres should now be far more attractive to participants in a 2015 water call settlement, who are required to reduce their groundwater consumption.
USDA’s Farm Service Agency recently announced it has increased the payment for each acre enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to about $150. The previous payment ranged from $120 to $130 per acre, depending on the county and other factors.
Idaho groundwater districts have also agreed to match the federal government’s increase for their members, bringing the total payment to about $180 per acre, which should be competitive with current rental rates on marginal farm ground. Lynn Tominaga, executive director with Idaho Ground Water Appropriators Inc., said land rentals now range from $175 to more than $400 per acre, depending on the crops raised.
“This was a wet year and maybe some people won’t go in right away,” Tominaga said. “If conditions dry up, this will help farmers meet the amount of water they can use.”
Tominaga said the CREP funding increases were approved for growers in Gooding, Lincoln, Jerome, Owyhee, Ada, Elmore, Power, Twin Falls, Bingham, Bannock, Minidoka and Cassia counties. He’s inquired to find out why a few counties on the plain — Bonneville, Jefferson, Clark, Teton, Butte and Blaine — were excluded.
CREP is operated under the Conservation Reserve Program, and is tailored to meet specific needs in each state. Idaho chose Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer water conservation as its resource need when the state started its CREP program in 2008, after water shortages led to water calls being filed by spring users and members of the Surface Water Coalition.
The program’s original goal was to enroll 100,000 acres. Tominaga said strong initial interest in CREP waned due to the resolution of water calls, rising commodity prices, counties reaching their CRP acreage caps and a $50,000 cap on revenue individual growers are allowed to receive through CRP. Idaho has since had its allowed CREP acreage cut to 50,000 acres.
Chuck Pentzer, CREP state coordinator with the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission, said there are 177 active CREP contracts encompassing nearly 18,000 acres, contributing to an annual water savings of more than 35,500 acre-feet. CREP contracts are 15 years, with open enrollment. Pentzer said members of his CREP committee identified the need for the payment increase and submitted paperwork making the request to USDA in September 2016.
Pentzer said program requirements are similar to general CRP. Participants must plant their acres in low-water grass and forb blends intended to benefit wildlife. Some grazing is allowed outside of bird nesting season.
Under the recent water call settlement with the Surface Water Coalition, ESPA groundwater users must average a 240,000 acre-foot reduction in their collective annual irrigation use.
American Falls farmer Kamren Koompin was asked to cut his annual well irrigation by about 9 percent. Koompin enrolled 650 acres of marginal ground after the CREP program started and plans to add 500 acres under the new rates. He anticipates CREP will account for more than half of his obligatory reduction.
“For the (land) we’re putting in, without the initial increase coming from the government, we would have been a little more hesitant to do it,” Koompin said.