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February 02, 2010   Email to Friend 

CLEAN & GREEN: Cost-Share Program An Environmental Investment In State
By Darryal Ray

By using the state cost-share program, Thomas Boyd of Ramer is helping clean up Catoma Creek.
When he and his wife Clemestine married 46 years ago, Thomas Boyd said she wanted to move to Montgomery.

"I didn't want any part of that," he was saying as his old Chevy pickup bounced like a rabbit across a pasture in Ramer. "I don't want to live in town. I'd rather live in the country."

Maybe so, but Boyd is more connected to Montgomery and its residents than maybe even he realized.

That's because Ramer Creek, which runs through his 100-acre cattle and vegetable farm, is part of the Catoma Creek watershed, a 360-square-mile area that serves as a perfect illustration of how something as simple as a fence, pasture or pond can mean the difference in clean, safe water for fish, wildlife and all Alabamians.

That is also why the Alabama Farmers Federation is working this legislative session to ensure that Alabama's 67 Soil & Water Conservation Districts maintain funding for a program Alabama farmers know as the "state cost-share program."

It's a program that enables farmers to not only farm smarter, but also meet federal mandates by paying, on average, half the cost of eligible conservation projects approved by their SWCD up to $5,000. More important, perhaps, is its critical role in the state's water quality.

Steve Cauthen, executive director of the Alabama Soil & Water Conservation Committee, explains that the cost-share program is comprised of three general areas: soil erosion, water quality and reforestation.

"The cost-share program is our program for on-the-ground projects," Cauthen explained. "... the money usually helps the smaller farmers, the ones who may need one thing like a water trough to distribute cattle on grazing land or a stream crossing."

The program, which received $2.1 million in funding this year after almost six years of little or no funding, divides those funds equally among the state's conservation districts which are governed by a board of local supervisors who serve without pay. That means, on average, each county receives roughly $30,000 toward improving the state's water quality. Unused funds are then returned to the state committee and redistributed according to need.

"What's good for Montgomery County may not be good for Lawrence County," said Cauthen. "Each Soil & Water Conservation District prioritizes their conservation problems and tailors it for their needs with an overall goal of enhancing our environment, keeping our water clean, keeping our streams clean. Everybody lives downstream from somebody else."

Of course, Thomas Boyd wasn't thinking about upstream, downstream or anything but his 30-plus head of cattle last February when he approached April Jones, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, for help on a pond and about 3,400 feet of fencing.

"When we had that drought, there wasn't much grass in the pasture for the cows to eat," Boyd said. "I thought that if I could rotate the cows to another pasture, it would really help out."

It was an easy request, one that the Montgomery Soil & Water Conservation District Board saw as an opportunity to help further downstream. In approving Boyd's request for fencing and cross-fencing and a pond, it was able to prevent his cattle from accessing Ramer Creek -- a conservation practice that has paid major dividends toward cleaning up Catoma Creek.

Once so polluted by urban and rural runoff that a 23-mile segment of the creek wasn't suitable for fish or wildlife, it was placed on the state's 303(d) list, so named after the section of the federal Clean Water Act that mandates its cleanup. More than a decade later, Catoma Creek remains on the list, but a variety of conservation programs -- funded largely by the SWCC's state cost-share program -- have the creek well on its way to recovery.

According to a "Nonpoint Source Program Success Story" report by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, conservation efforts like those implemented by the state's cost-share program are making a huge difference in Catoma Creek.

Fencing, ponds and watering troughs, heavy-use protection areas, stream crossings and pasture plantings are reducing the nitrogen levels in Catoma by more than 153,000 pounds per year, phosphorous levels by 17,000 pounds per year and sedimentation-siltation by more than 1,200 tons per year.

Similar success stories have been repeated throughout the state, whether cleaning up the Bear Creek Watershed in Franklin and Marion County or the Sand Mountain-Lake Guntersville Watershed in Marshall County.

Then, there are the untold countless other places where the state cost-share program's benefits may not be so visible but remain just as effective nonetheless.

One of those places is F&W Farms in southern Madison and northern Marshall County where Jeff Webster and Mike Frazier utilize no-till practices on about 3,000 acres of soybean, corn, wheat and cotton fields.

"If it wasn't for no-till, Mike and I wouldn't be here farming today," says Webster. "We don't have the runoff we once had, losing soil and nutrients. We use less chemicals and fuel and there's less erosion. It's a win-win situation."

"These cost-share programs give us the incentive to go out and do these things that might otherwise be financially difficult to undertake," Webster added. "The general public needs to know that through these practices, they are getting a good deal for a cleaner water supply. If we keep our air and our water clean, that should be worth more than what these programs cost the taxpayer."

Then there's Trantham Farms in Calhoun County, where Doug Trantham and his brother, David, operate a cattle, row crop and feed operation.

The Tranthams have not only used no-till methods on their row crops, but have relied on the state cost-share program to install water troughs, plant pastures and construct heavy-use feeding and watering areas by putting down a geo-textile fabric and gravel.

"It's another way of channeling government dollars back into the community," says Doug Trantham, who serves on the Calhoun County Soil & Water Conservation District Board. "Somebody makes that material, you buy it. Somebody makes the water trough and you buy it. You plant a pasture and you buy that seed from the local seed store. A lot of people don't understand ... they think farmers are the only ones benefiting, but that money goes back into the community too, and the public benefits from a cleaner environment."

J.O. Norris, the water quality coordinator at the Soil & Water Conservation Committee, agrees with that. Norris cites one economic impact estimate that there is a $17 return for every $1 spent on state cost-share. One reason for that is a $3.1 million investment by the state brings in $29 million in federal dollars through the NRCS, $7 million in federal funds through ADEM and EPA, $1 million in county government funds and $12.5 million in cost-share from landowners.

"Fertilizer companies, seed companies, contractors, pasture planting, tree planting, plastic piping... it has a big economic impact," Norris said.

Ironically, that economic return is only an incidental benefit of a program whose primary mission is to conserve Alabama's soil and water resources.

That those conservation efforts take place on private land only makes sense to Cauthen at the SWCC.

"The best way I can explain it is that private lands equal public good," said Cauthen. "If we are to meet our conservation and environmental goals, we have to do it on the private working land of the State of Alabama because 93 percent of the land is in private hands. Most of your state -- all but 7 percent of 33 million acres -- is in the hands of private landowners who want to do a good job. If we can get out there and work with them and help them understand that by putting in these conservation practices, they will actually help themselves but also help the person in town because it keeps the streams clean."

April Jones of NRCS points to Thomas Boyd's request as a case in point. "If a farmer in Ramer puts up a cross fence, it not only helps him but it's helping everyone in Montgomery County by helping improve clean water," she says. "We increased his production, but we also addressed environmental concerns. It was the best bang for the government dollar."

"Every dollar that's spent on a farmer's property for conservation is a dollar that is environmentally impacted," she adds. "One way or another, they are improving the environment, whether it's by rotating their cattle, keeping their cattle out of a stream by using a well or pond or planting a tree. Every time someone plants a tree, it's an environmental benefit for every man, woman and child."

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