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Published November 14, 2011, 03:40 PM

Fed 'water bank' program would offer annual payments for Devils Lake basin wetlands protection

Farmers in the flooded Devils Lake Basin could benefit from a federal agricultural program designed to voluntarily protect wetlands and flooded agricultural lands.

By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald

Farmers in the flooded Devils Lake Basin could benefit from a federal agricultural program designed to voluntarily protect wetlands and flooded agricultural lands.

An appropriations bill released today by a joint U.S. House-Senate conference committee includes $7.5 million for the program, according to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Appropriations Committee.

The program allows producers and landowners to enter into 10-year agreements to voluntarily protect wetlands and flooded farmland in return for annual payments. It is included in the 2012 Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, Transportation/Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill.

“Our state’s agricultural producers face enormous challenges from rising water,” Hoeven said. “The Water Bank Program will provide aid to our state’s farmers, especially those in the Devils Lake Basin, with flooded farmlands. The shorter agreements available under this program provide greater flexibility for our farmers to enroll their flooded farmlands in a conservation program, while working to ultimately return these valuable acres to production.”

The legislation would permit the agriculture secretary to waive limitations on the share of that funding that any single state could receive, which increases the potential use of the program in North Dakota, according to Hoeven.

Devils Lake has risen by almost 32 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, reaching a record elevation of 1,454.4 feet above sea level this past summer. At 1,458 feet, it would spill naturally from Stump Lake to the Sheyenne River Valley, which officials say could result in devastating flooding downstream.

The lake has swallowed about 167,000 acres, much of it prime farmland, in the past 18 years.

“It is my hope that as the Water Bank Program becomes available again, eligible North Dakota farmers apply for the program and put their land to good use until the day they can farm it again,” he said.

The bill now heads to the House and Senate floors for final consideration before being signed into law.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com.

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