USDA Seeks Public Comment on New EQIP Rule

USDA Seeks Public Comment on New EQIP Rule‏
 
On December 12, 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a rule that outlines how it will improve the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This interim rule with request for comment amends the existing Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) regulation to incorporate programmatic changes as authorized by amendments in the 2014 Farm Bill. USDA has established a 60-day comment period for the rule. Comments are due by Feb. 10, 2015 and can be submitted through regulations.gov or by mailing them. Full details are in the Federal Register notice available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-12-12/pdf/2014-28941.pdf.
 
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers EQIP, a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to eligible agricultural producers and forest landowners to help them address soil, water, air and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner. Resulting conservation and environmental benefits include improved water and air quality, reduced soil erosion and sedimentation, improved energy conservation, improved grazing and forest lands, and created or improved wildlife habitat on working farms, ranches and non-industrial forestlands.
 
USDA states that the changes are intended to simplify the EQIP regulation regarding conservation practice scheduling, payment limitations and other administrative actions. Highlights of program changes include the following:
·         Requires at least 5 percent of available EQIP funds be targeted for conservation practices that promote wildlife habitat;
·         Establishes EQIP as a contributing program for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program;
·         Increases the advanced payment from 30 percent to 50 percent for eligible historically underserved producers, including beginning farmers, to help purchase material or contract services;
·         Targets assistance to veteran farmers and ranchers including eligibility for the new 50 percent advance payment and up to 90 percent of the cost to implement EQIP conservation practices;
·         Increases the payment limitation for EQIP from $300,000 to a maximum of $450,000 for benefits received during 2014-2018 and removes the option for a waiver to exceed payment limitations;
·         Eliminates the requirement for a program contract to remain in place for one year after the last practice has been implemented, allowing practices to be scheduled through the tenth year of a contract;
·         Includes an option to waive the irrigation history requirement under certain conditions;
·         Incorporates the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program functions into EQIP. 
 
Regarding the option to waive the irrigation history requirement, part of this proposed rule addresses when EQIP monies can be used to fund conservation projects on land that is being irrigated with either surface or ground water.  There has been an irrigation history requirement in EQIP that is used to determine whether proposed irrigation related practices will result in water conservation or water savings. The requirement has been to provide evidence that land has been irrigated 2 of the past 5 years to ensure that both a natural resource concern will be addressed by EQIP assistance and that EQIP assistance does not result in adverse impacts to aquifer depletion or surface streams experiencing decreased flow. Whether water conservation objectives have been achieved is determined through a calculation of water savings based upon the difference in amount of water used before and after implementation of the irrigation practice.
 
USDA has received comments that this irrigation history requirement may have inadvertently disadvantaged some individuals or groups and there may be specific situations where adjustment of the requirement may be appropriate.  This rule proposes a waiver process for the irrigation history requirement.
 
This rule proposes a waiver process for the irrigation history requirement. To minimize any potential negative impacts upon surface and ground water supplies, NRCS is proposing to evaluate the impact of granting a waiver, both individually and cumulatively, prior to approval and incorporate any necessary limitations to ensure that such impact is minimized. Criteria used to evaluate the potential impact of a waiver on existing water supplies will be developed by NRCS, and the department is using this rulemaking as an opportunity to obtain public input on the availability of a waiver and the criteria for granting and evaluating the impact of such waivers.
 
USDA seeking comment specifically on impact criteria that would not allow for an irrigation history waiver, and provides examples of these impacts upon groundwater supplies based on if the aquifer is experiencing a decline in elevation or in yield or an area that have been subject to water shortages. They are also seeking comment on additional criteria that may include limiting the extent of the acreage being placed under irrigation and/or a time period for qualification to demonstrate that four of the last six years the land was under agricultural production. This waiver criteria is suggested in the proposal preamble to prevent conversion of land into more intensive uses that significantly impact water resources, and is patterned after recognized statutory cropping history requirements under the Conservation Reserve and Conservation Stewardship Programs.