Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Log of Our AWEP Experience

Over the next year I'll try to capture my experiences with the AWEP award we received earlier this month from NRCS.  For those who do not know, AWEP stands for Agricultural Water Enhancement Program.  It is a fairly new initiative within NRCS that was created in the 2008 Farm Bill.  It is actually part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which we'll discuss in a bit.  AWEP is a voluntary conservation initiative that provides financial and technical assistance to ag producers to implement ag water enhancement activities on land for the purposes of conserving surface and groundwater and improving water quality.

On July 2 it was announced that our proposal (from a partnership between GMD4, 4 county conservation districts, a county Farm Bureau group, and the Kansas Water Office) was awarded, and that in FY 2010 $2.666 million was being made available toward our plan - a 3-year, $9 million effort to permanently convert irrigated acres in our six high priority areas (HPAs) to non-irrigation uses - thus saving 100% of the groundwater irrigation use on these acres.

It must be noted here that we proposed to permanently convert acres with program payments between $1350 and $2250 per acre - depending on how much historic water had been used on them.  The acres with the most water used, would receive the highest payments.  Our proposed payment levels were based on just over 100 actual bid offerings from producers under a competitively bid water rights retirement program offered by Kansas last year. When awarded, we assumed that the entire program was approved.  This turned out NOT to be the case.

Remember that AWEP is implemented under the EQIP program - an on-going effort already with it's own rules.  Turns out that EQIP can only pay on the producer's lost income for adopting the conservation practice (converting irrigated acres to dry land production) and for only 5 years.  It was unlikely that any irrigator was going to give up irrigation forever for just 5, annual, lost income payments. Under these constraints, we requested that the award be changed to a 6-year irrigation set-aside for the same 5, annual, lost income payments.  NRCS approved. 

The temporary suspension of irrigation in our HPAs would help, but we were disappointed that permanent conversions would not be possible.  The fact is we were close to being disgusted that NRCS was good with paying $1100 an acre to not irrigate for 6 years, but not OK with paying $200 to $800 more an acre to conserve the water forever - all because of an EQIP rule.  To add insult to injury, NRCS also imposed an unbelievably short timeframe on this first year - setting an August 13, 2010 deadline for all producer applications. Recall, the program just got announced yesterday.

However, after more thought, we were wrong think that permanent conversions were out of reach and that AWEP was useless to us.  We now are embracing the AWEP award as a significant first step to this very goal - it'll just take another program or two to make it happen, and we have 5 years to craft whatever it is that we need.  And actually, since permanent conversions are off the table, the August 13 deadline is also not near as daunting.

In my next entry, I'll cover the details of our AWEP program and outline how we're expecting to work it with other programs to make these conservation efforts permanent.  As always, questions can be directed to me.

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