A week or so ago NRCS announced that the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) approved 63 conservation proposals in 21 states committing just over $57 million. AWEP is supposed to provide financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to improve water conditions on their land to protect and preserve U.S. water resources - or so the press release states.
Many of the approved proposals are going to improve irrigation efficiency. We already know that this more often than not leads to slightly higher consumptive water use - even if total pumpage decreases. Some of the largest proposals are in states that do not control new development, so even if some conservation were to occur, what's to stop new development from offsetting what our tax dollars pay to conserve? Many of the approved proposals are not in any of the eight designated priority areas.
The good news seems to be that 3 or 4 of the approved proposals actually plan to return irrigated land to dry land production - a very good conservation effort. However, the press release does not tell us if these are permanent or temporary conversions, or, if the payments are based on actual used water or a combination of used water and "paper" water rights. These details need to be known to accurately assess the conservation we'll really get from these efforts.
Based on these realities, AWEP is almost assured of spending a lot of money for not as much long term conservation as we could have had. We're also aware of at least 3 proposals that did not get approved which were for permanent conversions of irrigated land to dryland, based on actual historical use, in administratively closed areas (no new water rights allowed) and within one of the designated high priority areas. Yet somehow these proposals did not compete well.
There should be a serious accounting called for on this program before next year's increased allotment of $76 million gets doled out.