Qualifying farmers will be paid to flood their fields, providing alternative habitat for waterfowl that would normally migrate to marshland now threatened by the BP oil disaster, according to Kevin Norton, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The program was approved to encourage farmers and ranchers to flood as much as 150,000 acres in an eight-state area as habitat for birds that ordinarily fly to the coastal marshes.

“We will be evaluating applications and funding before Aug. 1,” Norton said.

He said not all of the details have been completed for the program, including the dollar amounts paid per acre. “We do not have our cost list approved yet,” he said.

He expects up to $1 million will be spent in Louisiana on the program.

The migration season will begin in a few weeks with shorebirds followed by teal, he said. Rice fields are particularly well-suited for this initiative, along with catfish ponds and crawfish farms.

Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, said farmers are conservation-minded. “They are concerned about the environment, and they are willing to help,” he said.

Saichuk studied the costs of pumping water, and it averaged $25 an acre when diesel was much cheaper. “It’s pretty expensive and these guys couldn’t afford to flood up without compensation,” he said.

The Louisiana Rice Growers Association (LRGA) board of directors has agreed to form a committee to propose the amount of compensation that would be adequate for farmers.

Norton told the LRGA board at a recent meeting that a number of wildlife organizations have been interested in persuading farmers to flood their fields in anticipation of the oil spill disrupting waterfowl overwintering this year along the coast. He has received calls from across the nation.

“People want to do something to offset the impacts (of the spill),” he said.

Norton said the program was approved with input from several groups, including the Louisiana Rice Growers and wildlife groups.

“As an organization I think we ought to step up,” LRGA board member Jackie Loewer of Branch said.

Board member Fred Zaunbrecher of Rayne said flooded crawfish fields could serve the purpose.

Norton said a range of water depth would be needed, from mud flats to 10-12 inches.

Board member John Owen of Richland Parish said the area should include the coastline all the way to Interstate 20 because north Louisiana is in the flyway for many species of ducks, geese and shorebirds.

The program now includes northeast and southwest Louisiana. Owen said farmers would have to receive enough compensation to cover their costs, plus some additional money for an incentive.

“It would not be a big gravy train at $50 per acre,” Owen said.

Board president Christian Richard of Indian Bayou said water pumping cost analysis by Saichuk could be used as a guideline.

The other states in the program are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

To get more details on the program, including maps to show the eligible areas, visit the website http://www.la.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/MBHI/index.html.