Colorado River conservation makes it into federal Farm Bill

Thomas Phippen/Glenwood Post Independent
A rancher cuts hay in the upper Colorado River basin. Most of the water on Colorado's Western Slope goes to growing hay, and the state is working on a program to pay ranchers to fallow fields on a temporary basis and send the saved water to Lake Powell, which is now at 47 percent and falling.
Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water conservation advocates cheered the passage of the Farm Bill in Congress Wednesday, saying it will help farmers and ranchers in the Colorado River Basin meet water needs while making sure enough water goes downstream.

“The critical drought resiliency provisions included in this bill will help to ensure Colorado’s farmers and ranchers can adapt to a changing climate while continuing to provide food and fiber to the nation,” Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said in a statement.

The Colorado River has seen low levels following about 18 years of drought conditions, and if the state doesn’t adapt, it will cause far worse problems later on, Zane Kessler, Colorado River District communications director, said in an interview.

The drought resiliency programs in the legislation will help producers cope with “the new normal,” and ensure irrigators can “continue farming and operating by providing assistance as we deal with less water in the river on an annual basis, largely attributable to climate change,” Kessler said.

Colorado Farm Bureau president Don Shawcroft mentioned the conservation programs as part of a number of positive aspects of the legislation.

“Not only will it ensure the safety net for producers, maintain and expand environmental stewardship programs, promote international trade and provide needed support to disadvantaged families, it removes future uncertainty for an industry struggling amongst low commodity prices,” Shawcroft said.

The final text of the 2018 Farm Bill, which authorizes U.S. Department of Agriculture programs ranging from crop subsidies to food stamps to the Forest Service, was approved by the Senate Tuesday and by the House Wednesday with bipartisan support. The bill will head to the White House for the president’s signature to become law.

Mueller and Kessler praised Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) for keeping water priorities in the bill through the months-long negotiating process.

Bennet, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, sponsored an amendment to create a framework for the National Forest to track and protect critical watersheds. Known as the Water Source Protection Program, Congress could fund it with up to $10 million over the next five years.

Also in the bill are expanded programs that help farmers implement water conservation measures. The legislation expedites the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which assists farmers implement conservation practices through cost-sharing agreements, incentive payments and technical assistance, specifically for watershed and riparian projects.

“All of that comes together to hopefully make sure our agricultural producers are better equipped to meet increasing demands and limited [water] supplies in the coming years,” Kessler said.

If the drought conditions are the new normal, it’s critical that everyone, including farmers, adapt, Kessler said. Colorado runs the risk of being forced to cut its own use to meet compact obligations downstream.

Colorado’s 3rd District U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, touted the legislation’s conservation measures, and the improved opportunities for growing industrial hemp.

“The bill also includes important provisions to protect and restore threatened habitats, help prevent catastrophic wildfires across the West and create more economic opportunities for the Third Congressional District through the production of industrial hemp,” Tipton said.

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