Farmers Give the
Idaho Snake-Payette Rivers
HUA Water Quality
Project High Marks
Former President George Bush launched a national water quality initiative in 1990 with the goal of safeguarding and enhancing the quality of surface and groundwater resources in the U.S. A focus of this initiative was to minimize agriculture's negative impact on water quality without adversely affecting farm profitability. In response, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiated a five-year cost-share program for 74 particularly vulnerable watershed areas. Southwestern Idaho was identified as one of these areas, and the resulting project, initiated in 1991, became known as the Idaho Snake-Payette Rivers Hydrologic Unit Water Quality Project (HUA).
Three UDSA partner agencies--the Natural Resource Conservation Service (formerly SCS), the Farm Services Agency (formerly ASCS), and the Extension Service (ES)--spearheaded this effort to introduce best managment practices (BMPs) on farms to protect water quality in southwestern Idaho. Best management practices are defined as management strategies to protect water quality without adversely impacting economic activities. BMPs consist of using the best cutting-edge management technologies currently available to grow food without degrading the environment. The federal agencies--NRCS, FSA, and ES--provided technical, financial (via cost-sharing), and educational assistance to growers for project implementation. Cost-sharing was used to accelerate the transfer of existing BMP technology necessary to protect ground and surface water quality. Depending on the BMP used, the federal government paid up to 75 percent of the cost for installation. The subsidies were provided as an educational tool and incentive so that producers would find the implemented BMPs to be both economically and environmentally acceptable. Consequently, it was hoped that the BMPs would be continued after the cost-share period ended.
The Idaho Snake-Payette Rivers HUA originally covered all of Payette and parts of Canyon, Gem, and Washington counties (Figure 1). Within this watershed, 12 small communities pump most of their water for domestic use from shallow wells. These shallow aquifers also exist in the rural areas within the watershed. Because of marketing and storage reasons (diseases), surface furrow irrigation has traditionally been the preferred methods for irrigating most crops in the study area; however, the efficiency of furrow irrigation is poor. Irrigation sets with long runs and extended duration often result in deep percolcation of soluble materials (pesticides and fertilizers), resulting in a serious loss of water and movement of chemicals downward in many cropping systems. The three primary threats to groundwater quality in the Idaho Snake-Payette Rivers HUA were excess water use (or poor irrigation management), nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N), and pesticides. Conversely, the major threat posed to surface water quality was from sediments from erosion on agricultural lands.
The practices implemented in the Idaho Snake-Payette Rivers HUA can be divided into six general categories based on the primary objective: water conveyance, irrigation systems, waste management, and other practices. Each subsidized BMP is listed in Table 1. Forty-eight producers participated in one or more programs (BMPs) designed to protect water quality in the watershed.
ditch or canal lining
|High pressure, underground,|
|Low pressure, underground,|
|Rigid gated pipeline||13||55|
|Structure for water control||14||65|
|Irrigation systems||Trickle irrigation system||2||75|
|Surface and sub-surface|
|Irrigation water management||47||0|
|Irrigation land leveling||16||65|
|Waste management||Waste management system||2||0|
|Waste storage structure||1||75|
|Agronomic field practice||Conservation cropping sequence||42||0|
|Cover and green manure crops||2||75|
|Pasture and hayland planting||12||75|
|Agrichemical management||Nutrient management||47||75|
After five years of activities (1991-1996), the HUA had met most of its original objectives. Follow-up work to assess both the effectiveness and the acceptance of the implemented BMPs by the producers was then initiated. Producer acceptance was deemed critical for this project to have a long-term positive impact on surface and groundwater quality in southwestern Idaho. Consequently, it was seen as imperative that producer opinions about the project be carefully evaluated. A survey of grower participants was designed to: (1) determine producer acceptance of the BMPs implemented, (2) determine the probability of using cost-shared BMPs to protect water quality without government subsidies in the future, (3) determine producers' views of the overall effectiveness of implemented BMPs in protecting water quality, (4) determine the producers' opinions about the economic sustainability of implemented BMPs, and (5) solicit suggestions for improvement of the HUA.
A face-to-face interview process was used to determine producer
opinions about the success of the HUA. Starting June 1, 1996, the
producers who participated in the HUA were contacted and interviewed.
Forty-four of the 48 producers receiving cost-share contracts were
actually interviewed. Three producers could not be contacted, while one
producer refused to be interviewed. Each producer was asked seven specific
Producers were most pleased with BMPs that resulted in a reduction in labor costs and/or other daily expenses. As a group, orchardists noted that what used to take a few laborers working all day to irrigate an orchard, with BMP implementation only require a computer that automatically shifted irrigation from one sector of the orchard to another. Many of the interviewed producers recognized that a single large investment could more than offset the cost of many smaller investments. Producers noted that a significant side effect of the improved economics was an improvenent in water quality. Many producers saw a noticeable, positive difference in both the quality and quantity of surface water runoff, without experiencing a decline in profit or an increase in labor costs. While all interviewed producers felt that improved water quality was desirable, they indicated it was unlikely they would have spent money to protect water quality without an economic incentive such as reduced labor costs.
The producers that said they would continue to use BMPs without economic support from the federal government felt that benefits other than cost-share incentives were the important attractions. Some of these attractions include savings in labor costs and protection of water quality. In fact, many of the producers that would voluntarily use BMPs did not mention cost-share money as an advantage of the HUA.
Judging from the producer interviews, the BMP most likely to be used in the future without cost-share incentives will be the microsprinkler system. Economic benefits experienced by producers using the microsprinklers seemed to be greater compared to other implemented BMPs. All of the producers that installed these systems had definite plans to install them on other parcels of land within the next few years, while some of the producers already had installed them on other land without the benefit of cost-sharing.Producers' views of the overall effectiveness of implemented BMPs in protecting water quality. Economic incentives were found to be important in the producer's evaluation, but if the implemented BMPs did not meet the goal of protecting water quality, then the HUA's original objective would have been nullified. Over 88 percent (39 out of 44) of the producers interviewed felt that at least one implemented BMP improved or protected water quality. Conversely, only 11.4 percent felt that the BMP or BMPs they implemented did not improve or protect water quality.
Most of the BMPs used in the HUA targeted surface water quality rather than groundwater quality; thus, the positive effects of the BMPs were quite visible. Producers were able to notice results soon after practices had been implemented. The improved farming techniques (in part caused by the BMPs) caused an immediate visual improvement in surface water quality. Conversely, many of the producers that did not notice any beneficial effects of implemented BMPs were involved in practices that had a lower-level impact on water quality. An example of a lower-level impact BMP is recordkeeping. Also, many producers did not recognize the beneficial impacts of some BMPs on water quality; for instance, removing weed seeds from water by screening. This practice improves water quality. Since a large majority of producers (88.6 percent) felt that the implemented BMPs had beneficial impacts on surface water quality, the BMPs should be considered successful.
It is likely that several BMPs had a beneficial impact on groundwater quality, but the fact that those impacts are not visible to the naked eye resulted in a lact of recognition by the interviewed producers. When asked about the impact of the implemented BMP on groundwater, most either said they did not know of any beneficial impacts or that they thought it could not hurt. The conservation of water for irrigation, especially through furrow irrigation, was often mentioned as positive. It is likely that this BMP caused a decrease in nutrient and/or pesticide leachng and, in essence, resulted in improved or protected groundwater.
Producer opinions on the economic sustainability of implemented BMPs. The survey indicated that, from a producer's viewpoint, the popularity of a particular BMP is based on its profitability. The odds that a producer will implement a BMP that is not profitable are poor. Over 88 percent (39 out of 44) of the interviewd producers felt that their productivity increased as a result of adopting a cost-shared BMP.
The decision of a producer to implement BMPs that protect water quality in the future is one that is based primarily on economics. While it is safe to assume that producers do not wish to degrade the environment--water quality in particular--producers will not take the necessary steps to improve water quality if the associated economics jeopardize profit. The primary economic incentives of most of the BMPs are the reduction of labor expenses, maintenance expenses, and farm inputs, and the associated increase in farm productivity resulting from better control of water and/or chemical application. An example of an economic incentive that would have a high degree of producer acceptance would be the installation of a more efficient irrigation system on a field planted in onions. This system would result in reduced N fertilizer application rates and losses, which in turn would reduce the producer's fertilizer bill. The observation that most producers noticed an economic gain by using BMPs provides a positive indication that for the most part, producers will adopt BMPs in the future if the practices are balanced between economic considerations and environmental protection.
Producer suggestions for improvement of the HUA. Programs such as the HUA often need modification over time to improve their effectiveness. While most producers were satisfied with this project and the associated implemented BMPs for water quality protection and enhancement, there were several specific suggestions for program improvement. Suggestions that were repeated most often during the interview process included: (1) cost-sharing for polyacrylamide (PAM) for soil erosion control, (2) improved technical assistance for the engineering phases of BMP design, and (3) greater flexibility in shifting cost-share funds between different BMPs.
It should be noted that several producers indicated that this project was the most satisfactory federal cost-share program with which they have ever been associated. The producers also credited the success of the project to local Extension and SCS staff located in the project office in Payette, Idaho.Summary
Adoption of BMPs that decrease sediment loads in runoff water would greatly improve surface water quality. Long-term improvements in groundwater quality may be tougher to achieve since groundwater pollution is not visible, and consequently, producers can not witness the results of BMPs that work to improve groundwater quality.
Based on results of the interview process the Idaho HUA was an outstanding success. A vast majority of the producers were pleased with the results, and several producers said that this was the best cost-share program with which they have ever been associated. From an environmental point of view the program was a success because it demonstrated that producers using BMPs can protect the environment (water quality) without losing their economic competitiveness.
The University of Idaho Cooperative Extension System has over 140 faculty strategically located throughout the state, including 84 agricultural educators stationed in 42 of 44 counties. In addition, faculty (specialists) are located on campus in Moscow and at research and extension centers in Aberdeen, Caldwell, Idaho Falls, Kimberly, Parma, Sandpoint, Tetonia, and Twin Falls.
This brochure, WQ-36, was prepared by R. L. Mahler, B.
A. Lolley, L. Brooks, and K. A. Loeffelman. Mahler, Lolley, and Loeffelman
are in the Soil Science Division, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho
83844. Brooks is Assistant Conservationist, NRCS, Boise, ID
Comments to author: firstname.lastname@example.org
All contents copyright © 1997-2003. College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Idaho. All rights reserved. Revised: January 3, 2003