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Under a pilot program offered by their local conservation district, some Delta growers are being paid to help the environment and expand land use.

The pilot program, initiated by the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District in Greenville, Miss., provides landowners a small monetary incentive to hold water on their crop fields through the winter months.

“We hope to improve soil and water resources by reducing soil erosion and sedimentation and to improve water quality through our winter water impoundment program,” says Blake New, district coordinator for the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District in Greenville, Miss. “As an incentive, we are paying farmers and landowners $1 per acre to install boards in their existing pipes throughout the winter months.”

Steve Prather of Leland, Miss., believes in the benefits of holding water on his rice and soybean fields during the winter months. He enrolled 250 acres of cropland in the pilot program offered by his local conservation district, and he maintains a winter flood on another 1,000-plus acres for weed control purposes.

“We normally have some fuel left in our tanks that we need to burn anyway, otherwise algae can build up in the tank over the winter,” he says. “When the tanks are empty, we're done pumping water for the winter.”

Maintaining a rainfall-induced flood on working agricultural fields from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15 is beneficial to both the grower and the environment, New says. The winter water impoundment program helps producers hold valuable topsoil on the field, while reducing erosion, fertilizer and pesticide runoff, and insect and weed pressure during the following year's crop season. Holding a flood through the winter months also provides a much-needed habitat for ducks, geese, and shorebirds, which in turn can provide the landowners and farmers with hunting lease opportunities.

Prather says, “We flood every acre that we can flood, and every year we land-level a little more of our cropland. We're using that water as our spring burndown for weed control. And while we've got our fields flooded, we hunt ducks and operate a guided hunting business. It's icing on the cake.

“Holding water on our fields during the winter months also helps rot the soybean and rice stubble in our no-till fields, which allows the drill to penetrate the soil better during spring planting,” he says.

New says, “We started this program as a pilot project in Washington County, but our goal is to increase the program to include the entire Mississippi Delta Region. We hope that other Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the Delta area will try to implement this program in their counties.”

Among those groups supporting the local conservation effort are Delta Wildlife, Wildlife Mississippi, Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Mississippi Association of Conservation Districts, and the Greenville, Miss.-based Delta Conservation Demonstration Center.

“We're very supportive of this program. We're searching now for funding for next year's winter water impoundment program, and we're talking with landowners to gain their participation,” says Hiram Boone, director of the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center.

Sam Newsom, Delta area vice president of the Mississippi Association of Conservation Districts, says, “This program is a novel idea. I hope other Soil and Water Conservation Districts will implement similar programs in their counties. Through this joint effort, we hope to improve soil and water quality and provide more habitat for migrating waterfowl in the Mississippi Delta.”

In 2003, Washington County's Soil and Water Conservation District set a goal to sign-up 5,000 acres in the program by Nov. 15. They surpassed that goal. “The acres came in fairly quickly, and we currently have 5,015 acres under contract for this winter,” says New. “We designed the contract with producers and landowners to be simple and to the point. We are not requiring anyone to pump up their fields but to simply place the boards in the existing pipes in a valid attempt to hold winter water.”

To insure program compliance, spot checks and satellite imagery are being used to check that water control structures are being properly used before the producer or landowner receives any payments.

“The purpose of the program is simple,” says New. “We want to reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, and improve water quality by placing boards in existing water control structures, and hold as much water on that field for as long as is feasible. We can't do that alone though, so we're seeking the help of willing partners to continue and expand this program.”

Washington County's program uses water control structures already in place and those installed through conservation programs such as EQIP, WHIP, and the Mississippi Partners Program. Irrigation pipe already under contract with other agencies must adhere to that contract's stated schedule. However, producers are not required to pump any water to flood that land. They must simply place the boards in the pipes in a valid attempt to hold water for the required time, according to New.

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