Area farmers await release of state funds

Farmers in the region are waiting for state funds that could help them protect waterways from runoff and pollution.

The statewide initiative established in 2014 covers 100 percent of the cost of projects aimed at keeping pollutants from flowing from agricultural land to nearby streams.

The Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District received applications for 127 eligible projects in fiscal 2015. The district lacks the money to complete all the projects because of a shortage of state cost-share funds. The backlog of funding of approved projects in the district is estimated at $2.5 million. In Shenandoah County there are 32 eligible yet not funded projects with an estimated value of $1.5 million, according to information from Garrett Morgan, county planner.

Farmers who signed up with the program received 100 percent of the cost of the projects. The state allocated $862,000 in the current fiscal period to the district for approved stream-exclusion projects. The district has 91 active and pending projects, 65 of which have been obligated to approved projects.

The Water Resource Advisory Council forwarded a resolution of support to the Board of Supervisors that asks the state to end the backlog of projects by funding the program. Morgan presented the proposed resolution to supervisors at a recent work session. The board is expected to consider taking action on the resolution at its meeting today.

“It’s kind of a way for the council and the board to kind of support the farmers who are on the wait list that were guaranteed money but, for whatever reason, the General Assembly has yet to allocate,” Morgan said.

No county money is involved in the program, Morgan added.

District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz asked Morgan if he expected the state to ask for matching local funds in the future. The state can’t change the funding formula for those farmers whose projects are on the waiting list, Morgan said.

“Because there was a 100-percent cost match, there was a big push,” Morgan said. “The people were interested for obvious reasons but maybe because so many people were interested they didn’t expect it. The terms of that agreement I don’t believe would change.”

Mary Gessner, one of the county’s representatives on the Board of Directors for the district, concurred that the program guarantees funding for the approved and pending projects.

“It’s just a question of when that funding will come … and we have a considerable backlog of projects and dollars that the projects are going to require,” Gessner said. “Our concern is that the producers, the farmers are going to get impatient if they have to wait too terribly long … and the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts is lobbying the state legislature to provide a sizable chunk of that needed money for the fiscal 2017 budget so that’s what we’re hoping for.”

County Administrator Mary T. Price said the locality received funding through this program for best management practices on the County Farm near Maurertown.

The county created the advisory panel to alert supervisors of the need to look into water-related issues. The panel also recommends that supervisors encourage representatives in the general assembly to fulfill funding obligations for stream-inclusion projects in the county.

In addition to the local and regional water quality benefits, improved herd health, soil and pastureland, and cost-share funds flow into the local economy as farmers buy materials and hire people to perform construction on projects.

Stream-exclusion projects aim to reduce runoff of sediment and nutrients from existing pastures and to cut non-point source pollution associated with grazing livestock. Fencing with a 35-foot buffer is a required part of this practice. Projects also can include off-stream water systems, hardened pads for winter feeding, stream crossings and internal fencing to support rotational grazing. These components must be maintained for at least 10 years to be eligible for state and local funding.

Without funding for the one-time program, the financial incentive to implement stream-exclusion projects is often not enough to encourage farmers to participate in the protection initiatives. Existing alternative programs only allow for a tax break of up to 25 percent of the total cost for stormwater exclusion projects.

The Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District covers the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren and the city of Winchester.

The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts operates as a nonprofit agency that advocates on behalf of the 47 districts statewide. Funding for the pending, stream-exclusion projects in the backlog remains a priority for the association during this general assembly session, executive director Kendall Tyree states in an email Monday.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com