The 2012 Farm Bill dance begins in DC


Last week the Agricultural Committee of the US House of Representatives began work on the 2012 Farm Bill with a kick-off hearing. I happened to be in DC at the time and I stood in line with lobbyists for farm groups waiting to get a good seat in the wood paneled hearing room.

I was not in DC to attend the hearing, however. My trip was intended to educate Members of Congress about the recently signed Klamath Dam and Water Deals. The Department of Interior – which orchestrated those Klamath Deals beginning during the Bush Administration – had just delivered draft federal legislation intended to get Congress to endorse the Deals without delving into the details.

My mission was to interest Members of Congress from Oregon and California and those who sit on committees which will consider Klamath legislation precisely in those details – to make them aware that serious questions have been raised about whether aspects of the Deals are in the Public Interest and in the interest of the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon. I’ve worked to clean-up the Klamath and restore Klamath Salmon for 35 years; I want Congress to fix what I see as bad policies, bad precedents and bad subsidies that are part of the Klamath Dam and Water Deals.

Those who want to see a report on my Klamath River work in DC can refer to the full report on KlamBlog; here I want to talk about the Farm Bill.

In most of the West’s river basins agriculture – including crop and livestock agriculture – directly consumes 80% to 90% of the base flow. Base flow refers to the lowest natural flow of a river or stream; in our region those flows occur during late summer and early fall.  Irrigation engineers tell us that water consumption by agriculture in western river basins can be reduced between 10 and 40% by implementing modern irrigation methods and equipment. Were that to actually happen, current and predicted water shortages in the West would evaporate like water in a shallow reservoir as would proposals for new dams and other massive infrastructure projects currently being promoted in states like California.

That fact is why I have worked since 2001 to promote, expand and – as it turns out –  reform the US Department of Agriculture’s program which is specifically designed to provide farmers and ranchers with money to purchase and install more efficient irrigation systems and to institute management approaches which will decrease consumptive water use. It is also why, while I was in DC, I met with the House Agricultural Committee staff members who will actually draft those provisions for the new 2012 Farm Bill.  

The USDA program to which I refer is EQIP – the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. This is the program which USDA and Congress have designed for the stated purpose conserving water in the West by improving on farm irrigation efficiency.

It all began after the famous Klamath Water Crisis of 2001 when the water needs of salmon and other fishes for the first time trumped the water needs of irrigation and other water users who receive water from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project. As farmers testified at the time, they had been able to count on “Reclamation” delivering all the water the irrigators desired for over 90 years no matter how little rain fell and how little snow pack accumulated on the mountains above. The Bureau of Reclamation had effectively abolished drought for these water users even though they live in the high desert of Eastern Oregon where rainfall rarely tops 15 inches per year. It was a great ride for those federally favored water users but it was killing the Klamath River and it ended in 2001 as a result of Endangered Species Act implementation.

The great Klamath Water Crisis of 2001 prompted rallies, protests and civil disobedience reported across the country - most notably by Fox News. In fact, the well-orchestrated Klamath Water Crisis was the model for a similar media circus last year when – as a result of multiple-drought years - the politically powerful Westlands Water District in California’s San Joaquin Valley was denied federal water because it does not have high priority water rights and the water was needed to provide for the ESA-listed Delta Smelt, Sacramento River Salmon and other fishes.

Last year Westlands was promptly granted massive EQIP funding to conserve water. This is also what happened on the Klamath in 2002. Klamath EQIP was included in the 2002 Farm Bill. It allocated $50 million dollars to conserve Klamath River water by improving irrigation efficiency. This was supposed to make more water available for the river flows needed by Klamath Salmon. The $50 million was quickly expended but the promise of reduced demand for Klamath water has not materialized.  Furthermore, in spite of the fact that information on taxpayer financed irrigation improvements is protected as “proprietary”,  I have been able to document that much of the $50 million was used by irrigators to develop new sources of irrigation water or otherwise to increase, rather than reduce, consumptive use of Klamath River water.

Many recipients of Klamath EQIP funding used it to drill wells into an aquifer that the US Geological Service had already declared was being pumped “unsustainably” resulting in a lowering water table. Others used the funding for new wells equipped with center pivot irrigation sprinklers. These are very efficient systems but they replaced diversion ditches which previously went dry with the end of the snowpack in July or August. With the new center pivot wells and sprinklers these irrigators could pump right through October thereby increasing both yield of crops or forage. Since the groundwater, however, was closely connected with surface flow, these EQIP projects INCREASED consumptive water use rather than reducing it.

I responded to the abuse of Klamath EQIP by working to assure that EQIP in the 2008 Farm Bill would require actual substantive reduction in consumptive water use on those farms and ranches receiving taxpayer assistance under EQIP. It was a sobering experience. Farm Bill language that issued from the House Agriculture Committee would have required a “minimum 15% reduction in consumptive water use” in order for a farmer or rancher to qualify to receive EQIP water conservation funding. But something happened on the way to the floor of the House. EQIP language was changed; the 15% required reduction became “minimum reduction…in consumptive water use.”  EQIP water conservation had been gutted; there would be no real conservation but rather taxpayer assistance to private businesses to improve irrigation systems in the interest of their own bottom lines, not the public interest.

Waste, fraud and abuse in the implementation  of USDA Conservation Programs has been documented in  Congressional Testimony by the USDA Inspector General and in several IG Reports over the past decade. But the Agriculture Committees in the House and Senate have shown little interest in reforming the programs. The members of Congress who run these committees – folks like chairs Colin Peterson in the House and Blanch Lincoln in the Senate – apparently have absolutely no interest in reforming EQIP and other Conservation Programs. In fact - judging from the manner in which these congresspersons have changed Farm Bill language in conference and rules committees where their work is hidden from the public - the members of congressional agriculture committees appear to be intent on completely transforming the so-called “Conservation Programs” into pure pork which deliver little to no conservation benefits and in some cases actually harm the environment as was the case in many Klamath EQIP projects.

One reason there is no movement to reform USDA Conservation Programs is indifference on the part of  environmental and conservation organizations. In fact, most of the environmental establishment is content to lobby for increased funding for Farm Bill Conservation Programs but they do not pay attention to how the legislative language they support will play out on the ground. When more funding is obtained these organizations declare victory and move on.  Some of the environmental establishment  –  most notably The Nature Conservancy – are major recipients of Farm Bill Conservation program funding.

I’m looking for environmental organizations to partner with in an effort to secure language in the 2012 Farm Bill sufficient to assure that taxpayer financed Conservation Programs actually deliver the conservation they promise. I am not optimistic that i will find such partners. I did not find employees of the environmental establishment’s DC offices in line waiting for a seat at the 2012 Farm Bill’s first hearing. Nor has any establishment group responded to direct inquiries. I did, however, encounter 30 or so of these employees at a cocktail party on the rooftop garden at the DC Hyatt. The party had been planned by DC employees of the Environmental Establishment to celebrate Earth Day. The hors d’ouvres were sub-par but the beer and wine were excellent. 

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