Ellis County may have to abandon its 38-year-old conservation program set up to help farmers undertake costly construction projects that slow water runoff and stop sediment from destroying county roads and polluting streams and rivers.

In recent budget cuts to outside agencies, the Ellis County commissioners cut $17,646 in 2020 funding from the Ellis County Conservation District.

That endangers a cost-share program set up by the county in 1982, said Sandi Scott, district manager of the conservation district.

The district on June 10 had asked the county for $72,646 for its budget, but the commissioners at their June 17 meeting agreed on $55,000.

Faced with a budget crisis in 2020, the commissioners made the move as part of a larger effort to trim more than $120,000 from the $1.05 million the county provides in funding to outside agencies.

“We understand this, we really, truly do,” Scott told the commissioners at their regular meeting Monday. “We don’t want to be in your chairs making these budget cuts and we fully understand that you have to. We are asking for a little bit of direction on how you see our budget.”

Scott asked the commissioners to reinstate at least $10,750, the amount in their budget reserved for the Ellis County conservation cost-share program. That’s the amount the county has funded for it for the past 15 years.

“We had a little work session the other morning, and there’s just no way to fund that Ellis County cost-share program if we stay at the $55,000. We just can’t take that big a cut in our operating fund,” Scott said.

By presentation’s end, County Commissioner Dustin Roths told Scott, “I’ll look into it a little closer and rehash that idea a little bit.”

The county commissioners will decide in the next couple of weeks the final numbers for the 2020 county budget.

Right now the cost-share program has 25 applications the conservation district staff are reviewing and ranking according to which will provide the greatest return for conservation.

“We try to get the most bang for our dollar out there,” Scott said.

Runoff from tilled fields, towns and roads can encroach onto farm ground and, through erosion, degrade the soil and send sediment into nearby streams and rivers or further downfield. Farmers whose ground is harmed can apply for the county cost-share money to build terraces or waterways, install drainage pipeline, or seed rangeland, all to redirect the runoff and help ease the problem.

If approved, the county pays a percentage of the county average of construction costs from previous years. Farmers sometimes get as much as 70 percent, up to $5,000, with the farmer paying the rest.

“When this program was set up, it was set up to work with the county — the road and bridges — so that we don’t have as much sediment in the ditches, so the water’s not running over the roads and wiping them out,” Scott explained.

“Is it based on need of a farmer, as far as financially,” asked Roths, “or is it just based on soil conservation?”

“It is based on the land,” Scott said. “Financial need doesn’t play a part at all.”

“Is the farmer required to put up some capital of their own?” Roths asked.

Scott said farmers pay a percentage.

“If an 80-acre field needs terraces or two waterways, it usually maxes out the $5,000,” she said. “It just gives them a boost to get the project done.”

Enrolling in the county program can also give farmers extra points for winning the more competitive state or federal conservation grants, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Currently Ellis County has farmers with multi-year federal grant contracts underway amounting to $1.2 million in CSP contracts, and $2 million in EQIP contracts, Scott said.

“Is there anything magical about the $10,750 number,” asked County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hines, “if the commissioners were able to come up with a different number for the cost-share?”

The amount is just what has been funded previously, Scott said.

“We really appreciate the reconsideration for this,” said Scott, noting if the county’s conservation money is added back in, it would be a $6,906 cut to their budget, “which is do-able,” she said. “We can figure out some way to make that work. I’m not sure how, but we will.”