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Wade Prescott performs minor repairs Friday afternoon on his combine that he uses on his farmland outside of Hazelton. Next year, as part of a deal made with the government through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Prescott will let half of the land go back to its natural state of sagebrush and prairie grass.
Farmers sign up to dry up
Agreeing to step away from land for 15 years is a tough decision for some
By Michelle Dunlop Times-News August 7, 2006, Twin Falls, Idaho
HAZELTON — After farming this area all his life, Wade Prescott recently decided to dry up half of his land in return for money from the government.

The choice wasn’t an easy one for this Hazelton-area farmer. Then again, Prescott says, most farmers who rely on groundwater to irrigate crops are running out of options.

“They’re going to push us out sooner or later,” Prescott said. “We figured this was a good chance to get out before they do.”

“They” are members of canal companies and irrigation districts who own senior rights entitling them to first dibs on water when supplies run low. Water did run short in 2005, leading surface water users to ask the state to shut down pumpers like Prescott, who dried up 10 percent of his farm last year. Due to changes in irrigation practices, aquifer pumping and drought, water levels in the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer have declined over the past 50 years. Unless the trend reverses, Prescott sees an uphill battle ahead for groundwater users.

That’s why Prescott elected to put 300 acres in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program — a joint state-federal plan to pay farmers to let their lands go dry — for the next 15 years. With a $258 million price tag, the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer CREP will take 100,000 acres out of production and reduce pumping on the aquifer by 200,000 acre-feet annually. That’s enough water to cover the same amount of land in water one-foot deep. Announced in May, the program still needs volunteers.

“There are several people who came in and said, ‘I need to get through harvest and then do this,’” said Wayne Hammon, Idaho’s executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency.

Farmers began signing their acres up for CREP at the end of May. As of Aug. 1, Farm Service Agency had 229,658 acres on the list, Hammon said. But not all of those acres qualify for the program. After reviewing about half of the list, FSA staff has submitted 21,820 acres and has disqualified 91,031 acres. About 116,807 acres still need to be evaluated.

The agency is seeing an enrollment rate of 19.4 percent — one acre enrolled for every five considered. At that rate, Hammon anticipates enrolling about 45,000 acres out of that initial list by mid-September.

Farm Service Agency approved Prescott’s land. The official approval should come later this fall. Once enrolled, Prescott says he will have about 250 acres left that are suitable for farming. He has a 1959 water right to irrigate the remaining land but isn’t optimistic even that will hold up.

“They’ll eventually get that, too,” Prescott said.

Prescott mostly raises feed for his cattle operation. But the war over water has him looking to move his whole farming-cattle operation elsewhere.

For years, surface water users say they’ve seen less water than they’re entitled to while pumpers get a full supply, which goes against Idaho’s first in time, first in right principle of water law. A recent district court ruling strengthened that tenet, putting pumpers in an uncertain position.

If approved for CREP, groundwater users are granted a reprieve from curtailments for enrolled acres. Still, Prescott says, CREP isn’t the solution for everyone, especially those who don’t own the land they farm.

“If you still have a mortgage, then it’s a break-even deal,” Prescott said.

Hammon hopes the program still will work for enough farmers to reach that 100,000-acre goal. The agency has until Dec. 31, 2007, to do so.

(Reporter Michelle Dunlop covers natural resources for the Times-News. She can be reached at 735-3237 or by e-mail at dunlop@magicvalley.com.)

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

What is it?

CREP is a federal-state cooperative conservation program that addresses targeted agricultural-related environmental concerns. Nationwide, landowners on 31,646 farms participate in the program, protecting 807,343 acres, including 88,072 wetland acres.

What is Idaho’s Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer Program?

The plan will reduce pumping on the aquifer by 200,000-acre feet annually. Of the 15-year, $258 million plan, the federal government will foot $183 million of the bill, with the state picking up $75 million.

Which lands are eligible in Idaho?

The state can enroll up to 100,000 acres. The acres had to have been farmed four out of six years from 1996 to 2001. And it had to be irrigated one out of the last two years. All or parts of the following counties could be eligible: Ada, Bingham, Blaine, Butte, Camas, Cassia, Clark, Custer, Elmore, Fremont, Gooding, Jefferson, Jerome, Lemhi, Lincoln, Madison, Minidoka, Owyhee and Twin Falls. In addition, all or parts of Bannock, Bonneville and Power counties could be eligible.

How can I participate?

Visit your local Farm Service Agency to sign up. The agency recommends making sure your records, including land and water rights, are updated to reflect correct ownership to expedite the process.

For information, visit the Farm Service Agency Web site at: www.fsa.usda.

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