Voices from the industry
New administration brings opportunities for Western agriculture
By Dan Keppen
A massive flood event or destructive drought are two sure crises that will get policymakers focused on improving water management policy. The recent drought has ramped up much-needed congressional interest in Western water. Late last year, President Obama signed into law the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. This will allow Western water providers to better manage and prepare for future dry times. Earlier this year, historic snowpack levels and heavy rains overwhelmed parts of the West Coast. This further underscores the critical importance of upgrading infrastructure and policies to enhance water resources management.
The Trump administration and Congress need to address Western water resources development with priority. Right now, new water projects are often hamstrung by a vast array of dated federal environmental laws and regulations. Unfortunately, it’s hard to draw attention to these issues. Right now, energy issues, repealing and/or replacing Obamacare and tax reform are all hogging the limelight in Washington.
It’s time to make Western irrigated agriculture one of the priorities for the Trump administration.
American food production requires a vibrant farm economy. For farmers to survive, a stable water supply is a must. In many areas of the West, water resources are available and projects are waiting to be developed. However, federal policies make development of these stabilizing water supplies nearly impossible.
Over the past decade, certain activist groups have cynically used fish and wildlife management to eliminate sectors of production agriculture. Sometimes, these efforts have been supported by our own federal government. It has happened in places like the Klamath Basin and California’s Central Valley. Water originally developed for farms and ranches has been redirected to meet the unsubstantiated needs of fish protected under the Endangered Species
Act. It is happening now in Oregon’s Deschutes River Basin, where environmental litigants are taking water away from farmers and dedicating it to the debatable needs of the ESA-protected Oregon spotted frog.
The producers and conservationists we work with are always looking for ways to find a sustainable balance of environmental protection and economic prosperity.
Irrigated agriculture provides a $172 billion annual boost to our economy. It also provides important habitat for western waterfowl and other wildlife. Its open spaces are treasured by citizens throughout the West and the nation. Family farmers and ranchers are clearly willing to partner with constructive conservation groups and federal agencies. There are many opportunities where producers can help both strengthen their productivity and improve the environment.
Still, many Western producers face daunting regulatory and policy-related challenges. Some of these are brought on — in part — by federal agency implementation of environmental laws. Others result from the harmful tactics employed by litigious, anti- farming activists. Plus, there are countless new rules and policies skewed toward environmental protection.
On the ground, water systems built early in the last century are aging. Once-reliable federal grants and loan programs are a thing of the past. Little progress has been made toward developing new and improved water infrastructure, while water demands of expanding cities, energy production and environmental needs continue to grow.
These challenges are daunting, and they will require innovative solutions:
• We must find ways to recover water supply certainty by updating and expanding Western water infrastructure.
• Congress and the Trump administration can find ways to curb environmental lawsuits against federal agencies and the rural communities they serve.
• It’s time to update and streamline outdated federal environmental laws so they work to enhance the nation’s food production, ecosystems and rural communities together.
• We must start trimming chapters, rather than adding new ones, to the regulatory playbook. The current one is already too voluminous, top-down and daunting.
We have worked closely with the Western Governors Association to seek creative ways to update the ESA and make it work better. We are always looking for specific recommendations that can be applied via legislation or administrative means.
We value our relationship with the Irrigation Association and will work on many of these endeavors with them. I serve on IA’s 2019 Farm Bill Task Force. We will continue to promote improved coordination between Interior Department and USDA water conservation program implementation. The role of irrigation districts in conservation grant programs must be elevated. We’ll also push for a stronger state and local role in decision-making on conservation matters.
The Family Farm Alliance has developed specific recommendations for the Trump administration that can help provide solutions to meet these needs. It is our hope that the administration will embrace our approach: the best solutions are driven locally by real people with a grasp of “on- the-ground” reality and who are strongly invested in successful solutions.
Dan Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a
nonprofit organization that advocates for
irrigated agriculture in
the 17 Western states. He has 28 years of experience working with Western water resources. Keppen is a past member of the IA Board of Directors.
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