NRCS Drought Assistance Averts Hazardous Wind Erosion in the Klamath Basin

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USDA-NRCS-logoOne of the early successes of this year’s drought response in California is the work of Klamath Basin farmers to rapidly establish cover crops on fallowed land.

Technical assistance was provided by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and funding was provided by the agency’s Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program. After a speedy signup, which resulted in 41 contracts, Klamath farmers protected 8,836 acres that could otherwise have resulted in severe wind erosion and hazardous dust storms.

The signup period ran from April 13 to May 15. Landowners had just ten days from the time of signup to get the crop planted and certified. All of the acres were planted and protected before the end of May.

“Our goal was to get a cover crop on key dust-producing areas of the Basin,” said John George, NRCS district conservationist in Tulelake. “Because of irrigation water cutbacks, we were relying to some extent on residual soil moisture to get this protective layer of vegetation up and going. It’s key to get the seeding in before the window of opportunity closes,” he said.
Minimal snowpack and rainfall during the 2014 winter resulted in reduced water deliveries to the irrigation districts. For many Klamath Basin farmers, this water reduction prevented the planting of normal crops in already tilled fields. NRCS estimated that approximately 6,500 acres of farmland that did not have alternative water sources would need to be treated to prevent wind erosion and wind-blown dust hazards. This estimate was later increased to 10,000 acres.

The Lava Beds-Butte Valley Resource Conservation District (RCD) in Tulelake served as the required sponsor for the emergency project. EWP provided $882,500 towards the $1.15 million cost, and $267,500 came from local sources.

“We were happy to be in the right place at the right time to sponsor this work,” said Lava Beds-Butte Valley RCD Chairman Mike Byrne. “The reason that farmers here are still irrigating at all is the assistance they received from NRCS for irrigation improvements after the water shut off in 2001,” Byrne added. “Farmers and ranchers are using and managing water much more efficiently. The amount of snow pack and lake water available in the 2013 and 2014 irrigation seasons was less than the amount available in 2001, when most irrigation was curtailed. The Klamath Project was able to provide full season irrigation in 2013, and water savings due to conservation practices implemented by farmers is a major reason full delivery occurred.”

Although California received $25 million for drought assistance to farmers through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) earlier this year, the work in the Klamath Basin was done through the EWP program due to urgency of the situation and the threat to lives and property from blowing dust. EWP funding is available for all private properties, not just agricultural land. EWP is implemented immediately and does not wait for a sign up deadline, and there isn’t a competitive ranking process.

“We have had two drought-related EWP agreements in California so far this year,” said acting State Conservation Engineer Dan Johnson. “Both of these are for dust control. One is in Madera County, and one is in the Klamath area. Some EWP drought funds are still available in state,” he noted.

“In addition to the EWP funds, NRCS is providing assistance directly to drought affected farmers and ranchers through EQIP,” said Assistant State Conservationist Alan Forkey. “Almost 2,000 applications for this drought assistance have been received and are in the process of clearing eligibility under the new guidelines for the 2014 Farm Bill and fiscal year. Applications are being ranked with top priority going to those who are protecting fallowed land from wind erosion using cover crops, mulching and other methods. Grazing management and water development to protect California rangeland ecosystems is also receiving priority ranking. Funding decisions are expected by early July.”