The Capital Press – a western agricultural weekly – is reporting that “conservation groups” are part of a coalition of agricultural and other organizations opposing cutting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) in order to fund the Obama Administration’s drive to expand child nutrition programs – including the innovative farm-to-school program. On the surface the opposition seems to make sense: Ag lands are key to conserving biological diversity as well as to cleaning up our rivers and streams, and USDA conservation programs promise to pay agricultural producers to do just that.
But as Congress, the USDA Inspector General and I, on this blog, have reported, USDA conservation programs too often transfer money to those who own agricultural land without realizing the promised conservation benefits. One of the programs that has been subject to this sort of abuse since its inception is water conservation under EQIP.
Using EQIP funding for “on farm water conservation” began with the 2002 Farm Bill, which provided $50 million dollars for what became known as Klamath EQIP. The idea was to fund improvements in farm irrigation efficiency. The saved water would not be diverted from the Klamath River and tributary streams, and therefore, would improve flows for salmon and other fishes.
It sounded good, but that is not the way it worked out. In spite of a clause in the Farm Bill protecting information on individual projects funded by the government (essentially making that information the equivalent of a trade or national security secret), I was able to document the fact that the program was most likely resulting in MORE water use and LESS water in the Klamath River.
Klamath EQIP funding was used by some irrigators to sink wells and exploit groundwater in areas like the Scott River, where ag pumping is unregulated and was already drying up the river, and in the lower Lost River Valley, where domestic wells were drying up and the USGS reported that pumping was unsustainably lowering the water table. Some of the funding was used to replace ditches that went dry in July with wells and center pivot irrigation systems which can be run all through the summer and fall. EQIP funding also brought irrigation to low-value ag fields that were lying fallow because the cost of irrigation exceeded the value of crops that could be produced. These landowners would not have brought this land under irrigation absent government funding.
EQIP “water conservation” funding was expanded in the 2008 Farm Bill. Certain “conservation organizations” agreed then to gut language which would have required a 15% reduction in consumptive water use for EQIP-funded irrigation efficiency projects. As a result, there is no requirement that water actually be conserved when the federal government funds new and "improved" irrigation systems.
The Klamath EQIP model was used again during California’s recent drought to provide Westlands Water District and other ag giants with government funding to exploit groundwater. With only a junior water right, Westlands had lost access to Trinity and Sacramento River water as a result of the drought. Proving the adage that water flows toward money, the federal government used EQIP to fund the irresponsible and unsustainable mining of groundwater in California’s Central Valley in order to maintain the profits of big ag producers. These producers also happen to be big contributors to the campaigns of Senator Diane Feinstein and other California politicians.
EQIP water conservation (sic) has become so popular that the USDA recently created a new name for the program. It is now called the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP). Here’s a link to the projects funded under that program during 2009.
In short, like so many of USDA’s so-called conservation programs, EQIP water conservation and AWEP have become tools to subsidize agricultural producers without the annoying requirement that the producers actually deliver conservation. Under these circumstances one would expect “conservation organizations” to oppose funding the program or at least to insist on reforms. Unfortunately, that has not been the case; major conservation organizations which work on agricultural issues all support conservation program funding in know-nothing, knee-jerk fashion.
A little investigation reveals which “conservation groups” signed the letter opposing cutting EQIP funding to advance child nutrition. They include Audubon, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Water Network, Izaak Walton League of America, and National Wildlife Federation. It comes as no surprise that – with the exception of EDF – the "conservation groups" opposing the cuts own or have interests in extensive agricultural lands which receive USDA conservation program funding.
In spite of years of waste, fraud and abuse reports from the USDA Inspector General, the progressive gutting of conservation from USDA conservation programs continues unabated. Meanwhile, the self-styled champions of the environment – aka "conservation groups" – are either asleep at the wheel or in deep collusion with the process. By targeting one of the most abused conservation programs – EQIP – the Obama Administration appears to recognize the need for cutting programs that have been corrupted. I hope they stick to their position on this one.
Felice Pace lives near the mouth of the Klamath River in Northwest California.