Saturday, July 16, 2011

Farm Bill & Water Conservation

This GMD has been discussing ways the federal Farm Bill could help with water conservation since the early 1990's.  In fact, it was in 1993 when we first suggested it to the Kansas Department of Agriculture upon their creation of the Agricultural Ogallala Task Force - to study water use in Kansas and make recommendations.  They made a lot of recommendations, one of which was pretty close to our suggestion.  It read:

Create an option within the federal farm program, possibly as a separate title to the 1995 farm bill, entitled the "Groundwater Conservation Program." The program would function with the following provisions:

a. Producers receive US Department of Ag deficiency payments from acres with irrigated history at the irrigated level if they agree not to irrigate those acres. This option would continue as long as the farmer does not irrigate and the federal deficiency payment structure exists.

b. It would apply to groundwater users in aquifers where groundwater mining is occurring. Groundwater mining refers to areas where water is removed from storage faster than is recharged naturally. This could be defined by a certain percentage drop in saturated thickness over a specific period of time.

c. The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) historical farm base would be preserved for all crops.

d. Irrigation wells which are not pumped for the duration of this federal program would be protected from abandonment by DWR in the same manner that wells are protected in the Center for Renewable Resources (CRR).

e. This program would be cost neutral to the federal budget.

f. A phase-in would ensue at a percentage of a farmer's irrigated land per year so as not to overly disrupt agribusinesses in the aquifer affected.

We offered our idea again as testimony in September 2005 when US Ag Secretary Johanns visited Kansas listening to ideas for the new Farm Bill (slated for 2007 at the time).  This time rather than setting aside irrigation altogether, we pushed for cropping subsidies for less water intensive crops that would encourage irrigators to grow and irrigate less corn and more milo, sunflowers and  soybeans, which all have lower water requirements.  The idea was to aim for the same economic returns for the producers in specially managed areas while conserving water and energy.  Our full testimony can be found here.  It should be noted, however, that both ideas are limited to special areas where water conservation is locally recognized as a need, and, only if these areas are closed to new appropriations.  Again, no need to conserve water if new water rights are going to be allowed.

I won't be surprised if the same concepts come up at next weeks Governor's Water Summit where Kansas Governor Brownback has asked for water conservation ideas that will maintain or increase economic returns as well.  He clearly realizes that conserving water in and of itself will have an economic impact.

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