New farm bill to help Western irrigators

Water Lines: From expanded EQIP to support for a key protection program, there is good news.

Congress in December easily passed the farm bill, sending the compromise legislation to the president’s desk. Congressional committee staff members said the mission of the conference was to reach a deal that could pass both chambers, and that compromise was the idea from the beginning.

Overall, the package agreed to by House and Senate negotiators more closely resembles the Senate version of the farm bill. House negotiators were forced to drop nearly all their demands on food stamp work requirements and key elements of their forest management and wildfire protection provisions. However, the farm bill includes several important provisions that will assist Western agricultural irrigators.

The farm bill includes expanded authority under Environmental Quality Incentives Program for irrigation districts — for the first time ever — to receive funding as direct applicants for water conservation measures as well as continued eligibility as partners. This language, proposed and advocated for by the Family Farm Alliance and others starting a decade ago, survived conference discussions, despite some opposition in the Senate. The new EQIP includes funding for water conservation scheduling, water distribution efficiency, soil moisture monitoring, and irrigation-related structural or other measures that conserve surface water or groundwater, including managed aquifer recovery practices.

The bill provides improved contracting for partners engaged in work with producers, which is intended to be streamlined and made more effective under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

Importantly, the 2018 Farm Bill preserves existing authorization structure and $50 million in mandatory funding for the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act, a flexible and useful program used by Western water managers. The demand for this program is probably at least twice as much as what was funded — but the funding is mandatory, which is encouraging.

Minimum prevention support The final bill establishes a limited, voluntary pilot program to conduct vegetation management projects on U.S. Forest Service lands and changes the liability standard to which utilities are held on those lands. Negotiators retained a provision from the 2014 Farm Bill to allow more clearing of forests deemed at wildfire risk due to insect infestation and disease. Salvage operations may also be possible under this authority. The measure would provide a new 4,500-acre categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act for forest management in sage grouse and mule deer habitat.

The contentious battle over the forestry title ultimately was decided by congressional leadership. After Republicans lost the House midterm elections, they also lost some bargaining leverage on this issue.

We were certainly disappointed that the final bill did not do more to improve wildfire prevention and forest management, particularly with the devastating California wildfires that were raging during the final days of farm bill negotiations. With tens of millions of acres of forest in need of thinning, the conversation about more intensive forest management is bound to continue and emerge in other legislation.

Overall, however, this farm bill contains far more Western-specific provisions than past bills. I’d like to think our Family Farm Alliance and the allies we worked with over the past two years had something to do with that.

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