Federal grants help farmers save money, prevent runoff; 'a win-win situation'
By SEAN ELLIS
Some of the Treasure Valley's largest farmers are helping to clean up the Boise River by adopting irrigation practices that result in fewer pollutants reaching the watershed.
The farmers have teamed up with local conservation districts, which provide grant money available through the Clean Water Act to help defray the cost of switching from surface-irrigated systems to drip or pivot systems.
Since 2009, four farmers have converted 194 acres from surface to drip systems, two farmers have converted 97 acres from surface to pivot sprinklers and 10 sediment ponds have been installed that hold up to 1,772 cubic yards of sediment.
The so-called 319 Project has prevented more than 3,100 tons of sediment, two tons of phosphorus and 14 tons of nitrates from entering the Boise River system each year, according to James Eller, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Caldwell office, which provides technical support.
Eller said the changes are resulting in a substantial improvement in the river, which is listed as an impaired water body.
"There's no doubt that they're having an impact," Eller said of the farmers, who have 60 percent of their costs covered by the project, which is administered by the Canyon Soil Conservation District and Lower Boise Watershed Council. "We wouldn't be able to do it without the farmers."
About $314,000 was spent on the project this year and grant money covered $188,000 of that cost.
Keller said the more efficient irrigation systems save more than 350 acre-feet of water per year and allow the farmers to use fewer inputs.
The project allowed Robert McKellip to become the first Idaho farmer to put mint acres on a drip irrigation system this year. Switching to that system has stopped water on a 56-acre mint field near Nampa from running into Five Mile Drain, which empties into the Boise River.
McKellip said his water, fertilizer, labor and fuel costs are down substantially.
"Since we put this drip system in, there has not been one drop of water go into Five Mile Drain," he said. "If we can actually make money and clean up the Boise River at the same time, that's a win-win situation."
He said the field is further ahead growth-wise than his other mint fields because the plants are more uniformly watered.
"It looks exceptional," he said of his first-year mint crop. "It looks like a second-year crop."
The grant money has helped Brad Watson install a drip system on 60 acres of onions near Notus as well as build 10 sediment ponds that collect sediment at the end of fields.
"It's helped us better manage our water and fertilizer use as well as improved the consistency of the crop," he said.
The 319 project will have about $340,000 available for next year and program officials are looking for more farmers interested in doing similar projects, said Linda Phillips, outreach coordinator for the CSCD. For information, contact her at 208-454-8684, ext. 131.