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New Farm Bill Program Benefiting Idaho Farms and Ranches

by John O’Connell

Photo by Matt Woodard

POCATELLO, Idaho — A new federal conservation grant included in the 2014 Farm Bill will benefit ranchers diverting from Idaho’s upper Blackfoot River and Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer groundwater irrigators.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which replaced previous farm bill programs including the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, has awarded $388 million nationwide for 115 cooperative conservation projects, with outside partners promising another $800 million in matching funds.

Idaho received $430,000 through the grant, administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, to replace a pair of irrigation diversions that stymie fish passage across the main-stem Blackfoot River through Caribou County and $1.1 million to address declining groundwater levels in the aquifer.

Travis Thomason, acting Idaho NRCS state conservationist, said the grant was competitive, drawing 600 proposals with a combined $2.1 billion in requests.

“Really that told us there’s a lot of interest in working with partnerships to move conservation along,” Thomason said.

The applicant for the upper Blackfoot projects — a coalition involving three mining companies, Trout Unlimited and the Idaho Conservation League called the Upper Blackfoot Confluence — contributed $750,000 toward replacing the old diversions, owned by ranchers Keith Hunsaker and Kent Allen.

Matt Woodard, with TU, said a conservation team with his organization determined in a 2011 assessment “all conditions were still on the ground for success” in the Blackfoot watershed, even though native Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations have been “hammered back.”

Keith Allred, a former candidate for Idaho governor who serves as UBC’s facilitator, said the coalition has already replaced ranchers’ diversions on two upper Blackfoot tributaries, opening up 25 miles of new cutthroat spawning habitat, with supplemental funding from other NRCS programs.

Originally published in the Capital Press

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