Texas conservation efforts get $21.5 million boost from stimulus

Texas watershed projects got a $21.5 million shot in the arm Thursday with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s announcement that the USDA will send $84.8 million to state and local governments to improve water quality, increase water supply, decrease soil erosion and improve fish and wildlife habitat in rural communities.

Texas will receive more than $21.5 million of the funds, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Oklahoma will get more than $1.7 million for three watershed projects and Kansas gets $214,000.

“President Obama is committed to improving water quality, creating more dependable water supplies and decreasing soil erosion and this funding will make a big difference in the lives of the people who live in these rural communities,” Vilsack said.

Other major benefits include improved community safety and health, flood mitigation, sediment control, and enhanced fish and wildlife habitat.

Steve Bednarz, watershed program manager for the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Temple, said the funds will help repair dams in 12 watersheds across the state and will be used in conjunction with another $5 million recently awarded for watershed rehabilitation.

“Now we have a lot of work to do,” Bednarz said. “These projects are very much needed and funding has been short for several years.”

The ARRA funds will be used in 12 Texas watersheds but will include as many as 24 separate projects. “Some of the watersheds have multiple projects and several dams that need repaired.”

Across the country, ARRA funds will be used to develop conservation measures such as planting vegetative cover and creating shallow water ponds to improve wildlife habitat, improving irrigation efficiency and conserving water, installing filter strips and soil erosion control practices, flood proofing homes and enhancing stream corridor and floodplain function, and constructing small flood control dams.

USDA is directing technical and financial assistance available through this funding toward projects that are ready to begin and that will relieve stress on local economies through the creation of over 1,400 jobs.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has worked closely with sponsors to identify projects that are ready for immediate implementation.

Bednarz said repairing dams in the 12 watersheds identified for ARRA funding will provide benefits to both rural and urban areas. He said projects on the upper Trinity River, for instance, are upstream of water supply reservoirs for both Fort Worth and Dallas. “These dams retain sediment and keeps it out of water supply reservoirs,” he said.

Watershed dams also help control flooding on agricultural land, rural infrastructures and residential areas.

Most of the watershed dams to be repaired are “close to the evaluated life span,” Bednarz said. Many were built nearly 50 years ago and “are in need of major repair. That’s not to say that they do not continue to function and provide benefits,” he said. “But the evaluated life span of the older dams is about 50 years.”

He said of the 11,000 watershed dams built in the United States, 4,000 are in Texas and Oklahoma. “That’s about 40 percent of the nation’s watershed projects,” he said.

Work should begin on the first Texas projects sometime in July. “We hope to have contracts let on the first three or so projects by July 1,” Bednarz said. “Five or six more should be under way by September 30, a few more by December and the rest by March of 2010.”

Completion time depends on complexity of the project and size of the dam but Bednarz anticipates most projects will be finished within three months.

“People don’t realize the benefits of a watershed project,” he said. “Most of these dams are out of sight so people don’t see them. They also may assume they don’t need them because they have no flood problems. There is a reason they don’t have flooding.” He said the dams that have been functional for as many as 50 years have been protecting people and property.

Bednarz said federal watershed investment in Texas amounts to $1.3 billion with a capitalized benefit of $4 billion and an annual benefit of $118 million.

Oklahoma conservation officials echoed the value of watershed projects.

“We are pleased that the USDA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are investing in new flood control dams in Oklahoma,” said Mike Thralls, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. “Oklahomans know the value of our network of 2,105 flood control dams. We are hopeful that Congress will continue to appropriate funds for new dams beyond this stimulus program.”

Thralls said two new small watershed upstream flood control dams will be built with the ARRA funds. That will raise the number of such dams in the state to 2,107 — more than any other state.

This project includes two dams in the Turkey Creek Watershed that will, in combination, directly protect from flooding eight bridges and eight county roads downstream. These will be the second and third of 11 dams planned for the watershed that, when the entire project is completed, will protect 13,722 acres, 18 homes and businesses from flooding.

The two dams were selected from a backlog of over 300 more upstream flood control dams planned for Oklahoma. The current infrastructure of dams provides $75 million in annual estimated benefits from reduced flood damages and other benefits.

“We share the Commission's excitement in this opportunity to help provide the citizens of Oklahoma with additional flood control protection,” said Clay Pope, director, Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.

“Every year our state’s 2,000 plus flood control dams save Oklahoma over $70 million in flood damage that does not happen because of the protection they provide. These new structures to be built because of these new stimulus funds will help even more. We are very appreciative of this federal assistance and look forward to getting these funds on the ground.”

The Turkey Creek Watershed Project extends into four counties in north-central Oklahoma: Alfalfa, Major, Garfield and Kingfisher. Federal funds for the construction of the two dams total $1,670,000.

Other ARRA funding includes: California, $10.3 million; Missouri, $4.9 million; Louisiana, $4.5 million; Arkansas, $134,000; Kentucky, $4.1 million; Minnesota, $540,000; Iowa, $1.5 million; Nebraska, $2 million; North Carolina, $5.3 million; Idaho, $430,000; Virginia, $973,000; and Montana, $281,000.

New York gets $1 million; Pennsylvania gets just more than $11.7 million; Colorado will receive close to $4 million and West Virginia will get about $5.5 million. The Northern Marianas get $4.1 million.

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