Proposed Farm Bill Expands Water Conservation Programs

NEW or expanded conservation initiatives, including funding for wetlands preservation and programs to improve water quality in priority areas, advanced as part of a farm bill the U.S House of Representatives passed in July.

Though the farm bill still faces a Senate vote this month and a threatened veto by President Bush in its current form, environmental lobbyists are optimistic that some form of the bill eventually will become law.

The $284 billion bill, passed 231- 191 on July 27 in the House, extends the current farm bill five more years, through 2012. The main purpose of the bill is to provide funding for agricultural programs, but it also encompasses programs related to conservation, nutrition, and renewable energy.


With the impact of farming on our nation's water usage and quality significant, funding for conservation programs in the current farm bill rises in importance as an industry issue. But what are the trends in agricultural water usage, and are today's farmers doing their part to help limit water usage and preserve water quality?

A study from the Water Energy Technology Team of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., reports that of all U.S. business sectors, agriculture is the largest consumer of electricity and water. Most of this electricity is used to pump groundwater at a cost of nearly $1.2 billion a year.

"An acre of housing uses about the same water as an acre of farm," said Larry Dale, a scientist and economist with the Berkeley laboratory.

That being said, droughts in certain parts of the country have generated farmer interest in water-conservation practices. In the West especially, farmers are switching to pressurized irrigation systems to save water. These systems, including drip irrigation, now cover about 4.2 million acres in California alone.

Surprisingly, these systems do not make a significant impact in water savings. "Overall the advantages are less than 5 percent" water conservation, Dale said.

"The main thing that it's doing is saving on groundwater pumping," he added. "Additional advantages are you can irrigate lands you wouldn't otherwise irrigate, such as hilly areas, and you can increase crop yields."

Another water-saving trend involves laser-leveling of fields. Dale explained that when fields are leveled, less water is needed for irrigation than with gravity-fed systems typically used on unlevel fields.

Use of reclaimed water from wastewater treatment plants for crop irrigation is more controversial. Reclaimed water systems continue to gain popularity nationwide but are commonly used in landscape irrigation and industrial processes. Dale said some nonfood crops have begun using reclaimed water, however.

HR 2419, the version passed by the House, included consideration of an amendment that failed called the Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment. That amendment would have allocated even more funding to conservation and nutrition. It also included reforms to wean farmers off of subsidy programs. Some elements of that proposal were worked into the final bill, however, satisfying at least to some degree pro-environmental groups.

"The pressure created by House reformers like Ron Kind and Jeff Flake [sponsors of that amendment] has forced House leaders to improve the bill, including new funding for conservation and nutrition," said Scott Faber, Farm and Food Policy Campaign director for Environmental Defense, a nonprofit proenvironmental group. "Farmers are eager to share the cost of clean water and wildlife habitat and our farm policies should do more to reward—not reject—farmers when they volunteer to meet our environmental challenges."

Under the farm bill passed by the House, conservation programs include:

• Extension of the Conservation Reserve Program. This program authorizes 39.2 million acres to be enrolled in the program through 2012 and involves helping farmers and ranchers comply with environmental laws such as converting highly erodible cropland to vegetative cover.

• Renewal and expansion of the Wetlands Reserve Program. This initiative adds 1.33 million acres over five years, including up to 10,000 acres of floodplain easements. This voluntary incentive-based program helps private landowners, farmers, and ranchers protect and restore wetlands on their property and removes marginal croplands from production.

• Extension of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Under this program, farmers and ranchers receive financial or technical help to implement conservation practices on eligible agricultural land to protect water, air, soil quality, or wildlife habitat. • Continuation of funding of Conservation Innovation Grants. These grants, in the amount of $20 million per year, relate to testing and implementing innovative environmental solutions. The bill includes a comprehensive conservation planning pilot for Chesapeake Bay.

• Creation of a new Regional Water Enhancement Program. This authorizes cooperative agreements between the Secretary of Agriculture and agriculture producers or non-federal government entities to improve regional water quality or quantity in priority areas, including Chesapeake Bay, Klamath, Everglades, and Upper Mississippi River Basin.

• Renewal of the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Program. This provides technical and financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the rehabilitation of existing small watershed projects that may include upgrading or removing dams.

• Improvement of the structure of the Conservation Security Program. This program pays farmers who are implementing conservation practices on their lands to encourage practices that benefit soil, water, and air resources. The former three-tiered system is replaced with an annual stewardship enhancement payment.

• Extension of the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. This program helps landowners develop and improve wildlife habitat primarily on private land and provides up to 75 percent cost-share assistance to establish and improve fish and wildlife habitat.

• Expansion of the Grassland Reserve Program. The program helps landowners restore and protect grassland, providing funding to enroll 1 million acres.

• Establishment of a Cooperative Conservation Program Initiative. This provision allows third parties, such as state and local governments, producer groups, or Indian tribes, to help identify specific conservation areas and issues that could better be addressed with their involvement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who supported HR 2419, applauded several aspects of the legislation, including the expanded provisions related to environmental issues and promotion of programs to expand renewable energy.

"In the area of conservation, the bill improves access to and funding for initiatives that take environmentally sensitive lands out of production. It encourages environmentally friendly practices on working lands. And it will invest 30 percent more to preserve farm and ranchland, improve water quality, enhance soil conservation, air quality, and wildlife habitat on working lands," Pelosi commented on the House floor during discussion of the bill.

But Sara Hopper, an attorney for Environmental Defense, lamented the fact that an additional $4.5 billion in conservation funding was lost as proposed in the Fairness in Food and Farm Policy Amendment. Support in the Senate from Sen. Tom Harkin could revive some of these provisions, however.

"We are disappointed that more [funding] wasn't provided," Hopper said. "Senator Harkin is interested in a more balanced farm policy and more money for conservation and healthy food choices."

With the existing farm bill set to expire at the end of September, supporters of conservation measures were working diligently to encourage the Senate to pass a similar measure, leaving the next step up to Bush for his vote.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Debbie Bolles is managing editor of Water & Wastewater News.

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