DENVER (AP) — A new conservation plan to help the Rio Grande watershed is getting the backing of state and federal officials.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar announced plans Thursday to work with local governments and landowners to protect air and water quality and prevent erosion. The goal is to help conserve irrigation water and reduce ground water withdrawal from the Rio Grande Basin.

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Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered with more than 500,000 farmers and ranchers on agreements to protect their land.

The Rio Grande begins in Colorado and flows 1,900 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1968, the river was one of the first eight rivers Congress designated into the National Wild and Scenic River System to protect its resources.

The proposed agreement calls for the establishment of permanent native grasses, permanent wildlife habitat, shallow areas for wildlife and wetland restoration on up to 40,000 acres of eligible irrigated cropland, with a goal of reducing annual irrigation water use by approximately 60,000 acre-feet.

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An acre-foot can meet the annual needs of about two households.

Farmers and ranchers in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties would be able to apply for incentives.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program allows agricultural producers to voluntarily establish conservation plans. In return, the project provides land owners and operators financial and technical assistance.

Participants will receive annual irrigated rental payments, cost share and incentive payments.

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