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Farmers Respond Favorably To Conservation Initiative
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A year from now, if all goes as planned, some 3,250 acres within the Oakdale Irrigation District will use water much more efficiently.

Pasture land will have been ripped, laser leveled and in some cases, converted to a higher-value crop. New pumps, pipes and sprinkler systems will have been installed. Wasteful runoff will have been reduced. And that’s just a start. OID’s On Farm Conservation Funding Program is planned to extend five more years, giving farmers plenty of time to participate.

This year, 114 landowners representing 135 parcels applied before the Jan. 14 deadline, a response OID General Manager Steve Knell called “tremendous” at Tuesday’s meeting (Jan. 20) of district directors. OID has about 2,900 agricultural water users who irrigate about 62,000 acres.

“When you offer a program that has a lot of traction in the community, you get a lot of positive feedback,” Knell said. “Farmers are telling us this is the kind of thing we should be doing.”

Highlight of the program are:

Farmers will not irrigate land enrolled in the program for one year; OID will market the unused irrigation water to buyers; 95 percent of the proceeds will be returned to the farmer – 20 percent in cash and 75 percent in credits to make efficiency upgrades on their property.

This year, OID will transfer the unused water for $400 an acre foot to either federal and/or state water contractors representing land south of the Delta.

Knell estimated the value of the water this year at about $4 million, with at least $3 million to be directly reinvested into on-farm upgrades. He expects most of that money to be spent with local companies. Even better, Knell said, is that many applicants have told OID’s staff that they intend to invest thousands more of their own money to complete improvement projects – increasing the amount of water saved in the future and sweetening the economic impact to the local region.

“This is turning out to be a true incentive program,” Knell said.

Based on the typical amount of irrigation water used in a season, the owner of a 50-acre pasture in the conservation program will be paid about $16,000 in cash and receive a credit worth another $58,000 to apply toward improvements. The owner of a 10-acre parcel would receive $3,200 in cash and about $12,000 in project credits.

More than half the land – 1,764 acres – enrolled this year is pasture, Knell said. Corn and oats account for 690 acres. The rest has been planted in rice and other crops. The average parcel size is 29 acres, Knell said. There are 50 enrollees with 10 acres or less and 54 with between 10 and 40 acres.

“We have a lot of small parcels that have irrigations problems. Having these guys doing land improvements will eliminate problems we’ve been nagging them about for years,” Knell added.

OID’s staff and a two-member board ad hoc committee will review all the applications. Final contracts are expected to be signed in early February with the cash incentives sent out by March 1, Knell said. He noted that the structure of the program is unique in California, as it drives money into conservation improvements on farm. It is modeled after the Environmental Quality Improvement Program managed by the federal National Resources Conservation Service.

The program helps OID and its ag customers meet state requirements related to water use, pricing and improving on-farm efficiency. The district must measure how much water is delivered to each of its ag users and bill them based on that volume. The board already has adopted a new rate structure for 2015.

The state wants farmers to be more efficient on how they irrigate, but offered no financial incentives to help pay for expensive improvements. OID’s program will focus on and assist farmers in meeting those requirements. At least 15 landowners representing more than 300 acres already have signaled their intent to sign up for the 2016 program.

Travis Dovala is one of them. He and his family raise horses and cattle and grow almonds, walnuts and grapes on 265 acres off Rodden Road.

“I think it’s a great solution for an unfunded mandate by the state,” Dovala said. “If I would have had the ability to go this year, I would have.”

Knell said the program is coming at a critical time.

“It’s these kinds of programs that California will need to survive the drought. If we don’t work together, everyone loses,” Knell said. “Farmers lose, cities lose, the environment loses. … All our ag land across the state needs improvement, but there’s not a lot of money to help pay for those investments.”