An April 29 cutoff date has been set for signing up for the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), according to William Puckett, Alabama state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Applying for AWEP is continuous; however, selecting applications for funding is completed periodically through batching periods with specific cutoff dates.

"We must take steps to protect and preserve our water resources, and AWEP provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to improve water conditions on their land," Puckett said.

The Agricultural Water Enhancement Program promotes ground and surface water conservation and improves water quality by helping farmers and ranchers implement agricultural water enhancement activities. Alabama AWEP will focus on the installation of upland storage ponds. Stored water will be used during the summer for irrigation. Practices that will be available include:

• Constructing upland irrigation storage ponds;

Installing pumps and pipelines to fill storage ponds;

• Irrigation system improvements or irrigation efficiency enhancements to improve the efficiency of and reduce the energy needs of existing irrigation systems;

Installation of soil moisture sensors and water meters to monitor and improve irrigation efficiencies.

AWEP was established by the 2008 farm bill and funding comes from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). NRCS administers AWEP by entering into EQIP contracts directly with agricultural producers.

Funding for this project was a direct result of a grant proposal by the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Soil and Water Conservation Committee, and the Alabama Universities Irrigation Initiative. All AWEP recipients must meet EQIP requirements. It is designed for bona fide agricultural producers that have been in crop production and have the need for water.

The amount of storage will be determined by an irrigation budget based on the exact amount of water justified by the crops irrigated. Applicants must be in agricultural production in order to apply. The statewide signup will be continuous with the first batching period ending on April 29. Successive batching periods may occur if additional funds become available.

Applicants will be ranked competitively statewide. Those applications with true upland ponds that do not impact wetlands and which rely on winter pumping from a stream or creek on the property to fill the pond will rank highest. Other pond and irrigation factors will be used to further rank the applicants.

When applicants are ranked, they will be funded in order of rank until funds are exhausted. Applicants will be notified if funded and EQIP contracts will be developed with their input to implement the plan over a 2-3 year period.

Interested producers should visit their nearest USDA Service Center to determine eligibility. Individuals are not eligible for EQIP until they have completed the Farm Bill eligibility requirements. Contact your local NRCS or Farm Service Agency Office to begin this process.

NRCS field offices are listed in the telephone directory under U.S. Department of Agriculture or on-line here.