Irrigators Look to CREPby Dave Wilkins, Staff Writer
Capital Press, June 2, 2006
PAUL, Idaho -- Faced with possible curtailment, some groundwater irrigators in Southern Idaho are taking a serious look at the new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
Signing up for the program won't protect irrigators from state curtailment orders, but it could mean compensation for idled cropland if they have to shut some pumps off.
The program announced May 19 could take up to 100,000 acres out of production above the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
Participants will be compensated for idling their irrigated farmground at an annual rental rate of about $120 to $130 per acre.
Registration began May 30 for participation beginning with the 2007 crop year.
Those who don't sign up and later receive a curtailment notice won't be eligible.
So far, there appears to be strong interest.
About 100 farmers turned out for an informational meeting May 25 in Paul. About 45 attended a similar meeting the night before in Jerome.
Other meetings were scheduled this week near Blackfoot and Roberts, and officials expected 75 to 100 irrigators at each of those gatherings.
"Like one farmer told me, the difference between $120 an acre and zero is a big difference," Lynn Tominaga, director of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, said this week.
The purpose of the new conservation program is to reduce demand on the aquifer and improve wildlife habitat. Participants will be required to establish and maintain cover crop grasses over the 15-year life of the contract.
Tominaga would like to see up to 50,000 acres enrolled in the five-county area comprised of Minidoka, Jerome, Gooding, Cassia and Lincoln counties.
"We're trying to get 30,000 to 50,000 acres in the five-county area," Tominaga told irrigators at the meeting in Paul. "It's very important that we try to get as many acres enrolled as possible."
Groundwater pumpers in the region could face state-ordered curtailments this year in a long-running battle with spring and surface-water users.
Depletion of the aquifer has contributed to declining spring flows that feed the Snake River.
CREP is expected to be part of the long-term solution, but pumpers with junior water rights still must come up with replacement water for senior surface water rights holders this year if they want to avoid curtailment.
Groundwater groups were scheduled to file a mitigation plan with the Idaho Department of Water Resources on May 30.
The plan includes converting about 9,000 acres from groundwater irrigation to surface water irrigation, at a annual savings to the aquifer of about 30,000 acre feet.
An additional 40,000 acre feet could be provided to the aquifer through managed recharge projects, Tominaga said.
Groundwater pumpers will have to wait a few weeks to find out whether their plan is accepted by IDWR Director Karl Dreher.
If it isn't, the agency could issue curtailment notices within the next couple of weeks.
For that reason, officials urged interested farmers to register early for CREP. It'll be too late if they wait until after they get a curtailment notice.
"You need to sign the register BEFORE you get that letter of curtailment," FSA official Ron Abbott told those attending the meeting.
An irrigator need only provide basic information such as name, phone number and the number of acres he would like to enroll to register for the program. They'll be contacted later to fill out a more detailed application.
Water flows in the Thousand Springs area are still declining, despite all the moisture this spring and last, Tominaga said.
"There is about an 18-month to two-year delay in the water conditions," he said. "All the water from this year and last probably won't show up until next year."
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