By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS — A program to help drought-stricken farmers get more water will cost 15 times the initial estimate.
Grants totaling $29 million have been approved for 5,885 farmers in Missouri to improve their water supplies. The money will be used to deepen wells or to drill new ones, and to expand irrigation systems.
Gov. Jay Nixon announced the program last month, expecting it to cost the state $2 million, with farmers paying 10 percent. The maximum state match for each project is $20,000.
But the owners of Missouri’s pastures — 99 percent of which were rated “poor” or “very poor” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week — swamped the state with applications. The cutoff was Monday.
Farmers must begin their projects within 72 hours of being approved and complete the work in 60 days.
Nixon announced in a news release Monday the average cost of the projects is $4,800, without noting the total cost of the program and how much it was over budget.
“The number of applications we received shows the real and immediate needs that farmers have during this unprecedented period of drought,” he said.
The costs will be paid for with reserve funds from various programs, including the State Soil and Water Districts Commission and rural development funds from the Department of Economic Development.
Nixon’s office noted that Missouri House Bill 8 grants him the authority to direct funds for “responding during a declared emergency at the direction of the governor, provided the services furnish immediate aid and relief.”
Republican gubernatorial nominee Dave Spence, the Democratic Nixon’s opponent in the general election, criticized the program.
“If we do go out with a drought-relief program, we’ll go out with something that actually works, not this one that the governor has concocted,” Spence said. “It looks like politics to me.”
Although nearly 6,000 applications were approved to put the program well over budget, Spence said he heard reports from the Missouri Farm Bureau and soil and water commission that many were rejected.
“They complained that it sounded great on paper, but in reality not many people were getting approved,” he told Missouri News Horizon. “It was probably with great intentions, but the reality of it is the practicality of implementation leaves a little bit to be desired.”
Nixon announced the program July 24, the day after he declared a state of emergency in Missouri due to the drought. He said on July 26 the state would put an additional $5 million into the program, but he made no further announcements on additional costs until Monday.