By CHRIS BLANK
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Following pleas from Missouri farmers for help amid historic heat and parched land, Gov. Jay Nixon bolstered funding Thursday for an emergency water assistance program and redirected money from winter heating aid to cooling for low-income residents.
Nixon said his administration is adding $5 million for an expanded cost-sharing program to deepen water wells, drill new ones or expand irrigation systems. That covers 90 percent of the cost for eligible projects instead of the typical 75 percent share for soil and water cost-share programs. Projects must help crops or livestock immediately and cannot harm the public water supply. Awards are capped at $20,000.
The state Soil and Water Commission approved $2 million for the effort Tuesday, but by Thursday, Nixon said it was apparent more money was needed. The governor's office said the state has received more than 600 applications with additional requests filed with local officials. Contracts have been approved for 33 water projects, totaling more than $195,000.
Nixon said there is demand for important projects that would improve the bottom line for Missouri farmers while also helping hold down prices by getting more products to market. He said many livestock producers have faced difficult choices about shrinking herds, partly because of a lack of water, and that there is still an opportunity for a good harvest from crops in irrigated fields.
"Neither side of the equation likes a drought," he said. "I mean folks don't produce as much and what you do produce costs more."
Some details are still being worked out, such as whether to allot a certain amount of money to each county. It was not immediately known how many additional farmers could get assistance thanks to the additional funding, but the $5 million would account for 250 people if each project received the maximum figure. Officials said awards were less than one-third of that for the first 33 projects.
Applications must be submitted by Aug. 6 to a soil or water district or through state government's website at www.mo.gov .
The governor also announced that $1.5 million left unspent during a warm winter for heating assistance would go toward helping pay cooling costs. Summer cooling through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program now will have $9.1 million. Nixon said there have been 28 heat-related deaths in Missouri and more than 900 heat-related visits to hospital emergency rooms.
Missouri's long, hot, dry summer is approaching several weather records. The National Weather Service reported that through Wednesday, St. Louis has a record 11 days with a high temperature of at least 105 degrees. Temperatures have climbed that high for eight days in Columbia, which is the fifth most and greatest number since 1980.
Columbia has reported 19 days with a high temperature of at least 100 degrees compared to 16 days for St. Louis. That is the sixth most 100-degree days for Columbia and the seventh most for St. Louis.
The drought also has worsened, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Conditions were rated in the two most severe drought categories in more than two-thirds of the state, with nearly 10 percent in southeastern Missouri classified as in exceptional drought, which is the highest rating. By comparison, just 5.7 percent of the state was rated abnormally dry three months ago at the end of April.
Nixon said officials would consider whether to add more funding after examining demand.
"We will continue digging deeper in our well to find the resources necessary to make sure we get our crops to market this year and our livestock," he said.