Farmers initially were taken aback by federal demands a decade ago that they curtail irrigation practices resulting in the dumping of 98,000 tons of salt a year into the Colorado River.

But the U.S. Soil Conservation Service - which wanted changes in the traditional flood-irrigation practices - said farmers soon learned they could cash in on technical assistance and upgrade their irrigation systems on a government check.By this year, the SCS had improved the irrigation systems of more than 1,000 Uinta Basin farmers and stopped more than 40,000 tons of salt from entering the Colorado River annually, said James Weston, district conservationist.

The average irrigation efficiency in the Uinta Basin has improved from 30 percent to 60 percent, mostly because of sprinkler systems.

Local farmers have benefited from almost $23 million in irrigation equipment and $8 million in technical assistance.

"The program is working extremely well. We have more farmers waiting to sign up today than we have dollars," Weston told the Utah Nonpoint Source Water Quality Conference.

Weston said the salinity control program was instigated to comply with a 1973 treaty between U.S. and Mexico that guaranteed Colorado River water will be drinkable when it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

The Uinta Basin was identified as a major contributor of irrigation runoff, sediment erosion and salt loads, he said.

The SCS came to the area with intentions of keeping 98,000 tons of salt from reaching the river and improving irrigation efficiency on 128,000 acres of farm land.

To reach its goals, the SCS plans on spending about $67 million through 2005 in the Uinta Basin. Another SCS project may open up in the Price area in several years, he said.

Those dollars are supposed to improve water quality, water usage and crop yields.

"So far, we've reached half our goals," Weston said.

The SCS has treated 71,000 acres of farmlands and reduced 41,000 tons of salt per year. In the process, alfalfa yields have increased up to six tons an acre and scarce water resources have been used more efficiently.

Farmers cooperating with the SCS, however, are required to share 30 percent of costs and follow practices to decrease irrigation runoff and improve wildlife habitat.

The SCS has also undertaken the huge task of reducing sedimentation and salt loads on rangelands in the Colorado River Basin.