A new program may help broaden the scope of conservation efforts in the new farm bill.

While there are several conservation programs available to agricultural producers, most aim to improve lands on an individual farm-by-farm basis rather than a regional, cooperative basis.

The proposed Regional Water Enhancement Program is an effort to fill that gap, said Greg Schildwachter, associate director of the President's Council on Environmental Quality. He spoke June 18 during a seminar sponsored by the Idaho Water Users Association.

The RWEP would cover an entire watershed or irrigation district, Schildwachter said.

The Bush administration has proposed spending $1.75 billion over 10 years on the new program as part of a redesigned Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture would distribute RWEP cost-share funds through a competitive grant process.

State governments, Indian tribes, non-governmental organizations or water districts could sign up as partners for specific projects.

Recipients, including local community groups, water districts, nonprofits or farming groups, would administer the funds to achieve clearly defined water quality and conservation goals.

The program would enroll participants in three- to five-year contracts and would target cooperative efforts on working agricultural lands.

To encourage sponsors and the farming community to broaden the scope of the projects, the federal cost-share rate would increase depending on the proportion of producers in a project area.

The hope is that projects would attract broad participation and achieve water quality or conservation improvements across the entire watershed.

"It's hard to get that kind of cooperation with individual contracts," Schildwachter said.

Performance targets would have to be met to ensure timely results and be eligible for renewed funding.

A House agricultural subcommittee already has approved a farm bill conservation title with some of the RWEP provisions in it, Schildwachter said.

But the subcommittee also cut the proposed funding by more than half, providing just $600 million over 10 years, he said.

The administration is open to negotiate on how the program can be implemented best, Schildwachter said.

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