In an exclusive announcement to Delta Farm Press, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran says that due to a concerted effort to address agriculture and environmental concerns, the Mississippi Delta has been named an EQIP national priority area.

"This priority designation will mean more approvals and more money in the pockets of Delta farmers for conservation practices that will protect water quality for everyone's benefit," says Cochran, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

The announcement comes six years after the Mississippi state offices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service began its efforts to obtain the priority label for an area that covers all or part of 19 counties stretching 150 miles from the state line near Memphis, Tenn. to Vicksburg, Miss.

Delta Council, and its soil and water resources committee, also pushed hard for the priority designation, but the Stoneville-Miss.-based organization gives much of the credit to Sen. Cochran. “He has worked intensely for several years to see this to fruition,” says Chat Phillips, committee chairman and Yazoo City, Miss., farmer.

“Being named a National Priority Area will allow growers, and other landowners, to address the most pressing natural resource concern in the Mississippi Delta, which is groundwater declines,” he says. “Producers will hopefully be able to use these EQIP funds not only to save water, but also to save money in their operations by converting to more efficient irrigation practices.”

State NRCS officials call the move “a common sense approach to implementing conservation and environmental programs,” says Homer Wilkes, state NRCS director, who is based in Jackson, Miss.

“Nature ignores manmade political boundaries. A watershed approach to planning across competing interests, programs, and political boundaries is essential to the success of any regional water resource management program.”

About 70 percent of the Delta’s 4 million-plus acres are under cultivation, and about half of those are irrigated. The Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer underlies the entire region and supplies 95 percent of the water used for irrigation, according to NRCS records.

“Funding of the Delta EQIP Priority area will be a major step in implementing the Delta Water Supply Plan developed by the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Yazoo Miss. Delta Joint Water Management District and the NRCS,” adds James Johnson, NRCS district director in Greenwood, Miss.

A state water management plan developed by NRCS says overuse of surface and groundwater supplies threatens the viability of the region’s water supply for crop irrigation and aquaculture and leads to low stream flow conditions.

These low stream flow volumes can result in a loss of fisheries habitat, pose potential threats to human health and safety, and threaten fisheries’ health from failure to adequately dilute wastewater ditches. The NRCS Delta Water Supply Study also documents sediment and nutrient enrichment of surface waters from nonpoint-source runoff.

“It is very difficult and in fact pointless to try to separate water quality and quantity issues in the Delta. The two are so complexly intertwined that they have become one problem. Any practice done to improve one will improve the other,” says Wilkes.

“For example, water conservation practices have direct influences on water quality by decreasing nonpoint runoff.”

Wilkes says making the Delta a priority area will allow farmers and landowners to implement those conservation management practices that produce the most environmental impact for the dollar. Implementing conservation practices on a watershed basis allows conservation practices to be evaluated based on contributions to the health of the entire watershed area, not just to an individual farm, he says.

“It is important to focus our natural resource management efforts toward scientifically documented issues and solutions so that the limited financial and human resources available to implement solutions can be spent in a manner that will produce the best environmental and economic results,” he says.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com