The Western drought and the contention surrounding it has provided an opportunity for opponents of irrigated agriculture to falsely criticize our industry, and to use the crisis to advance questionable solutions that are built upon false assumptions.
One popular criticism leveled by certain environmental organizations and their allies in Congress and the media have suggested that the recent shift in California towards higher value crops like nuts and wine grapes have led to an increase in agricultural water use. This criticism persists, even though the total amount of agricultural water in the Golden State has held steady since 2000 and actually declined over a longer period.
One Bay Area Congressman has taken this flawed criticism one step further and has proposed legislation intended to “fix” it. Rep. Jared Huffman earlier this year introduced the “Drought Relief and Resilience Act”. While the act contains several provisions that could assist with tacking drought challenges throughout the West, one section of Mr. Huffman’s bill – Title III, “Improved Reclamation Crop Data” - would require the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to do a report on “water-intensive” permanent crops planted by Reclamation contractors during drought emergencies over the past decade.
Title III raises key concerns. The most problematic concern rests with the bill’s provision to define in law the term "water-intensive crops" as those that can't be sustained absent irrigation. It appears that the provision is intended to apply only to permanent crops -- trees and vines -- but the language itself could be interpreted to apply to all crops. The problem is that under this definition, the vast majority of crops grown in the West on lands irrigated by Reclamation projects would be classified as "water-intensive." While there would be no immediate practical consequence to the "water-intensive" label, it carries a strongly negative connotation and would no doubt be used by some groups to attack farming and irrigation practices in California and other parts of the West.
The second thing that the language does is require the Secretary to report to Congress on the extent to which "water-intensive" crops were planted during declared "drought emergencies" within the past decade. Some Western producers are concerned that the required report to Congress is intended to provide at least rhetorical justification for regulations or legislation to control what farmers can and cannot grow on their own land if they irrigate with water from a federal project.
Unfortunately, Subtitle D has cast a shadow on potentially constructive discussions about other positive aspects of Mr. Huffman’s bill. As it stands right now, this section is seen as a hostile and provocative provision that provides no actual benefits to anybody.
In the letter that Rep. Huffman sent to his colleagues in Congress, requesting support for his bill, he stated the bill’s intent of “helping arid regions survive the current drought while building greater drought resilience for the future….while also creating jobs and protecting our environment.”
It is difficult to see how Title III will advance Rep. Huffman’s stated purpose.
Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a west-wide coalition of farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts and allied industries that advocates for reliable and affordable irrigation.