Water conservation remains critical ag goal
Ongoing improvements in water conservation are critical to Florida agriculture and the state's economy. As a result, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Southwest Florida Water Management District and University of Florida IFAS, among other organizations, have led a long and successful initiative to increase awareness of and participation in conservation programs. "The Florida agriculture industry has a good story to tell when it comes to water conservation," said Darrell Smith, assistant director at FDACS' office of agricultural water policy. "Ag producers have always been interested in being as efficient as they can, because it affects the cost of their operations and their bottom lines," Smith said. "But ag producers also want to do the right thing to help save water and protect water, so over the years the industry has been supportive, as have UF IFAS, USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the ag associations. Everyone is interested in helping the industry and individual producers do a better job at being efficient in the use of water." Two key existing programs cited by Smith are mobile irrigation labs (MILs) and the Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems (FARMS) initiative created by FDACS and SWFWMD.Both are cost-share programs that reimburse farmers for a significant portion of their investments in improved irrigation and water conservation. MILs now provide educational services in all 66 Florida counties. They are supported by three water management districts, as well as FDACS, NRCS and a number of counties and public utilities. Each MIL consists of a one- or two-person team, a vehicle and field equipment that is used to evaluate agricultural operations and provide site-specific expertise in analyzing irrigation systems and educating property owners on how to improve water conservation. MIL services are provided free of charge. Since 2004, MILs have conducted more than 9,400 evaluations on more than 242,000 acres of land. Those activities have resulted in water savings of more than 10 billion gallons per year, with the potential to save more than 24 billion gallons per year if all recommendations were implemented. The FARMS program is an agricultural best management practice (BMP) cost-share reimbursement program that addresses both water quantity and water quality. Its purpose is to implement production-scale agricultural BMP projects that will provide water quality improvement, reduction of Upper Floridian aquifer withdrawals and/or conservation, and restoration or augmentation of the area's water resources and ecology. The goal of the program, explained program director Edward Craig, is to offset 40 million gallons of ground water per day within the District's Southern Water Use Caution Area (SWUCA) by the year 2025 and to offset 180 million gallons per day per freeze event in the Dover/Plant City Water use Caution Area (DPCWUCA) by the year 2020. "As of January, there were 102 operational FARMS projects and 64 additional projects have been approved by the SWFWMD board and are in the contract development or construction stage," Craig said. "The 166 total board-approved projects are projected to have a groundwater offset of 24.5 million gallons of water per day district-wide and 22.8 million gallons per day for the 120 board-approved projects within the SWUCA. The projected offset for the 25 Board- approved Frost-Freeze Protection projects (post-January 2010) within the DPCWUCA is 48.4 million gallons per day per freeze event." To meet the objectives of the FARMS Program, SWFWMD enters into a voluntary public/private contractual partnership with an agricultural entity and will share the cost of implementing production-scale agricultural BMPs. Project cost-share rates are generally capped at 50 percent for projects with BMPs that will provide either water quality or water quantity benefits and at 75 percent for projects that incorporate both water quality and quantity benefits. Participants are required to enter into a contractual agreements with SWFWMD that will last from five to 25 years. Contract duration is based on the type of project, the service life of components, and specified cost-benefit ratios provided in the SWFWMD's 2001 Regional Water Supply Plan (RWSP). The newest weapon in FDACS's water conservation arsenal is a cost-share frost-freeze weather station project created last year in partnership with UF IFAS's Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN) program to improve the ability of farmers to manage water use during frost-freeze events. "For a number of years, UF has operated 30 or more weather stations throughout the state that report to a web site where producers can monitor rainfall and climate and also have tools for irrigation scheduling," Smith said. "What we've added in the last few months is this personal weather station component so that producers will now be able to actually look at weather data related to their operation, either at the web site or via a smart phone application that UF has helped us develop. Those are just additional tools that producers can use to help themselves in a cold weather event, so they know exactly when the temperature gets to the point where they know they have to turn on their irrigation systems. But if they can delay that a little bit, or shut it down a little early, that can save millions of gallons of water." For more information on the MIL program, visit FloridaAgWaterPolicy.com/MobileIrrigationLabs.html or your local IFAS extension office. For more information on the FARMS program, visit WaterMatters.org.