Conservation practices accounted for a $376 million economic impact on Texas communities in 2008, part of a total $2 billion benefit from funds allocated throughout the 2002 farm program.

“These practices improved the quality of the land and the environment and improved profitability and productivity for producers and an economic benefit to the communities,” said Don Gohmert, Texas state conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Gohmert, speaking at the annual Texas Commodity Symposium in Amarillo, said 8 million new acres were included in conservation plans in the state last year. More than 280 livestock facilities had help with nutrient management through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program,” Gohmert said.

Also, conservation programs assisted on 8 million acres of grazing land and 5.7 million of wildlife habitat. More than 8,000 acres of wetlands were restored or enhanced in 2008. “These are voluntary, incentive-driven programs on privately owned land,” Gohmert said.

Irrigation also received significant assistance from NRCS programs. “Irrigation efficiency programs saved almost 600,000 acre feet of water. From 2002 through 2008, irrigation programs assisted on 2.7 million acres and saved water amounting to 440,000 football fields deep.

“We've seen tremendous improvement in irrigation systems and methods. We work closely with producers to get practices and systems applied to the land.”

He said that EQIP enrolled more than 74 million acres in 2008. “It was a banner year for conservation in Texas. We had $94 million for conservations programs and $515 million during the life of the farm program, 2002 through 2008.”

Conservation faced some severe challenges last year, too. “On Sept. 13, Hurricane Ike hit and forced us to refocus what we were doing. Texas state agencies, including NRCS, Extension, Texas Department of Agriculture and FSA pulled together to focus resources.”

He said a 12-foot to 15-foot wall of water inundated large areas near the Texas coast, “drowning fields and pastures and leaving salt. It tore out grain bins, knocked down fences and killed cattle. We had more than 1,350 cattle carcasses to dispose of. We lost hay and rangeland that was burned out by the salt water.”

Gohmert said EQIP funds are helping to restore pastureland.

“We had to identify drowned cattle through ID tags and by photographing brands. Dealing with decomposing carcasses was tough duty.”

Gohmert said agencies also had to open channels and canals clogged by storm debris “to prevent further flooding.”

He said more routine activities included brush control, “which is very important. We're also working on wildlife habitat needs and problems for species such as the pronghorn antelope, the lesser prairie chicken, bobwhite quail and the red cockaded woodpecker.”

Gohmert said dams also rate a high priority with the agency. “We have 343 dams now considered high hazard, an increase of 126 since 2007.” He said operation and maintenance costs to meet standards could run to $11 million. Repair costs could top $53 million and rehab costs could reach $349 million.

“Infrastructure is more important now,” Gohmert said. “People are moving downstream of these structures, so we have potential for loss of life if structures fail. Fortunately, we have no dams in dire straits of failure and most are better than when they were built in the 1950s. We hope to get help through the stimulus package.”

He said NRCS also works with new plant materials to help with conservation efforts. “We have three facilities in Texas that look for native and adapted species that are useful in conservation,” he said.

Gohmert said details of the 2008 farm program are still being worked out. New programs will include energy conservation programs, reduced water use and organic production. “An agriculture water enhancement program is new and replaces the ground and surface water program. It promotes ground and surface water conservation and improved water quality. Rules are not out yet but this will be important to West Texas.”

Other changes in conservation programs include the Conservation Stewardship changing to the Conservation Security Program that features five-year contracts. The program will include less than 13 million acres a year. “They are still in the rule-making process,” Gohmert said.

He said EQIP funding caps will be lower.