Goal is on-farm improvements
A user-friendly program launched last year by Wheatland County provides funding for agricultural landowners as they protect and preserve water sources on their land. And the benefits increase for producers with an Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) in place.
The driving force behind the Wheatland County Water Protection Initiative, launched in 2011, was to encourage "on-the-ground practice change," says Sarah Schumacher, agricultural conservation and communications coordinator with Wheatland County. The program is one of Wheatland County's commitments under Alberta's Agricultural Service Board Environmental Stream Funding.
Wheatland County has had a long-running, extension-based environmental funding program, and the Water Protection Initiative was a natural fit, says Schumacher.
"This enhances our extension program," explains Schumacher, who is also the EFP technician for Wheatland County. "One of the reasons Council approved the program was because a lot of those water quality issues affect the community as a whole. Oftentimes it's not financially feasible for producers to make all those practice changes on their own."
Any project that conserves or improves water quality within Wheatland County will be considered for Water Protection Initiative funding. Successful applicants can receive up to 50 percent of project costs, to a maximum of $3,000. If the producer has an EFP, a water, grazing or manure management plan or a riparian health assessment in place, funding increases to 75 percent of the total project cost, to a maximum of $3,500.
The financial incentive for landowners with an EFP also exists to encourage producers without an EFP to complete one, says Schumacher. For Wheatland County producers, the EFP process can also help them identify areas of concern on their land that may be eligible for funding under the Water Protection Initiative.
The application process for project funding is simple. Producers fill out a form that covers how the project will improve water quality, plans for long-term management, as well as project budget. The application is then submitted for review. The $50,000 of available funding under the Water Protection Initiative is provided on a first-come, first-served basis and each landowner can receive funding only once per year.
Many of the projects funded to date have involved groundwater protection, with over half involving the abandonment of old wells. Other examples of eligible projects include installing pitless adaptors on wells with well pits, off-site watering systems, portable livestock shelters and fencing of riparian areas to manage livestock access to water bodies.
Producer response to the program is growing. Schumacher says the County recently conducted a riparian health inventory along the stretch of the Rosebud River that falls within County boundaries. They used that opportunity to identify areas for improvement and to promote the Water Protection Initiative to producers whose land borders the Rosebud River.
The Water Protection Initiative is flexible Schumacher points out. If a producer's project idea could ultimately protect groundwater or surface water, but doesn't quite fit the eligibility criteria, the County will work with them to modify the project to meet program objectives.
More information on EFPs in Alberta is available at www.albertaefp.com.