The U.S. Agriculture Department has awarded 76 Colorado River Salinity Control contracts totaling more than $3 million to Utah farmers to install improved irrigation systems and wildlife habitat.

"The Uintah Basin is one of two areas within the United States approved to provide farmers cost-share funds" under the salinity control project, said Jim Weston, Soil Conservation Service project manager.The program in seven western states is designed to help reduce salt concentrations in irrigation water returning to the Colorado River, Weston said, by improving irrigation systems.

Soil conservationist Todd Nielson said the irrigation systems include gravity sprinkler systems, pivots and wheel lines. The wildlife habitat projects include ponds, fencing off restricted areas, tree and shrub shelters, and food plots for the fall and winter months.

There are 205,000 acres of irrigated cropland within the project area, Nielson said Friday, and "very little of that has adequate storage.

"The sprinkler systems and the pipes extend the use of that water," he said, noting most of the new irrigation systems replace flooding.

"Commonly, people apply much more water than they need to, and any excess water leaves the farm either by runoff or percolating through the soil," Nielson said.

"In the Uintah Basin, when excess water percolates through the soil past the root zone, it picks up soluble salts. Those salts are then transported into the river system.

"Our objective is to reduce the amount of percolation by putting on improved systems that have higher efficiencies, reducing the water applied to the soil," he said.

Basin farmers are eligible for up to $100,000 in federal cost-share funds. They harvest mainly alfalfa, barley and oats, with much of the land also dedicated to pastureland.

The most recent contracts will treat 3,486 acres of land, preventing an estimated 2,177 tons of salt from reaching the Colorado River each year, Weston said. In addition, about 155 acres of upland game habitat and wetlands will be developed.

Duchesne County's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service authorized more than $1.5 million to help fund 52 of the salinity contracts, he said. That of Uintah County provided nearly $700,000 for 24 of the contracts.