Last month, the USDA announced its plan to invest an additional $21 million of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to support on-farm water conservation efforts in severely drought-stricken areas. The investment will expand financial and technical assistance to crop and livestock producers in eight states, including California, in an effort to promote practices that conserve water and build soil health.
Administered by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), EQIP supports on-farm conservation improvements through financial cost-sharing and technical assistance to growers. Over $27 million of FY 2015 EQIP funding is already targeted toward drought management practices in California. The additional funding will direct EQIP allocations to areas experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions, and focus on conservation practices that help farmers cope with drought, such as improving irrigation efficiency, implementing prescribed grazing, and building soil health through cover crops and reduced tillage. NRCS aims to both improve on-farm water use efficiency and also contribute to the long term resilience of crop, pasture, and rangelands against drought.
In a similar effort to conserve water, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has opened a new round of water-energy efficiency grants through the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP). SWEEP offers financial assistance to growers for installing irrigation systems that conserve water and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Eligible projects include pump improvements, equipment to optimize water distribution (such as soil moisture sensors), and other quantifiable irrigation improvement and GHG reduction management strategies.
An initial $9.5 million in SWEEP allocations covered 154 on-farm projects, and another $10 million is now available, with growers eligible for up to $150,000 per operation. Applications will be accepted until June 29th. For more information on applying, click here.
While improving irrigation efficiency is an important part of making California farms more drought resilient, there are a variety of management practices that should be used in combination to maximize on-farm water and energy savings. Focusing solely on water distribution systems ignores the many benefits associated with other conservation practices, in particular those that build soil health. Reduced tillage and the use of cover crops not only significantly increase soil carbon, but also improve the soil’s water holding capacity, thus reducing irrigation needs. Additionally, these soil building practices offer energy- and cost savings by reducing on-farm tractor use and the need for synthetic fertilizer, ultimately offsetting the GHG emissions associated with farm vehicle use and the production of nitrogen fertilizer.
NRCS recognizes the value of soil health when it comes to coping with drought. Between 2009 and 2012, EQIP financial and technical assistance supported the planting of cover crops on over 1.5 million acres nationwide. For FY 2014, EQIP funds were directed to the California Drought Response Initiative for Irrigated Cropland, offering assistance for a variety of conservation practices, including: crop rotation, cover crops, hedgerows, irrigation improvements, tailwater recovery, mulching, and more. The new EQIP funds will also prioritize cover crops and reduced tillage, in addition to other water conservation strategies.
Building soil health is key to unlocking the climate benefits and water-saving capacity of working lands. Directing funds only toward projects that improve irrigation efficiency undermines the potential contribution SWEEP could make to bolstering the long-term resilience of California farms against drought and other impacts of climate change. In the future, we hope to see SWEEP take a more whole farm system approach to water conservation as NRCS has done through EQIP.