USDA Secretary Ed Schafer has announced up to $58.4 million in financial assistance to agricultural producers and entities nationwide through the new Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP).

AWEP offers financial and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers carry out water enhancement activities that conserve ground and surface water and improve water quality on agricultural lands such as cropland, pasture, grassland, and rangeland.

Enhancement activities include:

• water quality or water conservation plan development;

• water conservation restoration or enhancement projects including conversion to the production of less water-intensive agricultural commodities or dry land farming;

• water quality, quantity restoration, and enhancement projects;

• irrigation system improvement and irrigation efficiency enhancement;

• activities designed to reduce drought's impacts;

• other efforts to achieve water quality or water conservation benefits on agricultural land.

The AWEP program is administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 farm bill) established AWEP as a component of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), USDA's largest conservation program on working agricultural lands. All EQIP requirements and policies will apply to AWEP.

NRCS is seeking project proposals from potential partners through the program. A “Request for Proposals” was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 14. Proposals must be submitted by March 2, 2009. The proposal request can be viewed at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

Under the program, NRCS can contract directly with agricultural producers who are included in approved partner proposals. Eligible partners include federally-recognized tribes, states, units of local government, or agricultural or silvicultural associations.

Producers who apply for AWEP assistance must meet EQIP eligibility requirements. All AWEP funding must go to producers.