‘Five-Alarm’ Drought Sparks Lawmaker Push for Water Conservation

  • Lawmakers plan overhaul of water programs in next farm bill
  • Historic western drought threatens crop yields, water access

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Senators from both sides of the aisle previewed the need to amp up water conservation programs in the next farm bill, as the West sees its worst drought in more than 1,200 years.

Lawmakers have urged more disaster relief funding as rural areas reel from the water shortage. On Tuesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers also said there was a need for investments and improvements in programs for farmers to get the most out of the water they use.

“This is a five-alarm fire in the American West,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry panel’s subcommittee on conservation, climate, forestry, and natural resources.

The drought, whose severity scientists attribute to human-caused climate change, has dried out riverbeds and lowered projected crop yields. The hearing highlighted that both Democrats and Republicans believe conservation programs are vital to preserving water in the West—though lawmakers didn’t agree on specific ideas.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
A caution sign at the Castaic Lake reservoir on May 3, 2022, in Castaic, Calif. The reservoir is at 52% capacity, below the historic average of 60%, due to a water shortage emergency.

Flexibility was a major focus of the subcommittee’s first hearing since 2013, with witnesses urging the lawmakers to better encourage farmers to use water-saving technologies.

“Unfortunately the federal programs, they mean well, but the flexibility is not there,” Tom Willis, a farmer from Kansas, testified. He said state programs that offer cost-sharing for conservation technology yield better results, adding that the federal government should focus on giving farmers incentives to try new technology without using a one-size-fits-all approach.

Litany of Weather Events

Lawmakers from both parties brought up raging wildfires, drought, and chaotic precipitation patterns in their home states as unique challenges that need to be addressed through methods such as capturing rainfall to use it later.

“It sure seems that we’re having more flood events,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said. “How can we manage that water from rivers that are flooding and store them better?”

Lawmkers’ discussions will continue as the full committee begins drafting the must-pass farm bill, which will be reauthorized in fiscal 2023. The package sets policy for many key agricultural conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps farmers engage in conservation practices like planting cover crops to reduce erosion.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said water siphoned to cities, and away from farmers, is a potential issue in conservation, while Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) highlighted the need for programs to be written so farmers can try new conservation technologies without having to “bet the farm” on the results.

In authorizing conservation programs in the farm bill, Bennet noted after the hearing, “it’s not just a matter of funding, it’s also a matter of how it all works.”

“The bipartisan spirit in there was extremely constructive, and I think that sets the groundwork for where we need to head,” Bennet added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Sheehey in Washington at msheehey@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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