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Irrigators Concerned about Proposed Conservation Program

by Larry Swisher
Capital Press - December 21, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture groups are uniting against a new watershed conservation program being considered in the U.S. Senate because Western irrigators fear it would undermine state water rights and encourage federal agencies to take farms out of production for environmental purposes.

Opposition to the provision from agriculture groups, particularly the farm Bureau, was cited by Republicans as another reason to delay further Senate consideration of a Democrat-drafted farm bill until next year. The bill was pulled from the floor last week just before Congress ended for the year.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who is leading efforts to kill the proposal called it "a federal grab on water."

In an eleventh-hour move led by Oregon and other Western state chapters of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the national group's board of directors held a special telephone conference-call meeting on Dec. 18 and voted to oppose Senate passage of the farm bill if it includes the water conservation program. Previously, the farm bureau had urged senators to complete work on the farm bill and pass it by the end of the year.

"This language poses an extraordinary new threat to agriculture and the ability of farmers and ranchers to remain economically viable," President Bob Stallman said in a letter to Crapo. "The water provisions in the bill set a dangerous precedent that would erode historic state water law."

Leaders of Western state farm bureaus remained adamantly opposed to the provision even after it was amended by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. With the change, the measure defers to state water rights and allows states to "opt out" by requiring the governor to approve the USDA's use of the program in a state.

The regional leaders pressured the American Farm Bureau Federation "to take that hardline position, and so they did that to support the Western states," Oregon Farm Bureau lobbyist Jean Wilkinson said.

Other groups that also back an amendment by Crapo to remove the proposal from the farm bill include the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Association of Wheat Growers.

The water conservation program was "inserted secretly in the bill after (Senate Agriculture) Committee passage," the wheat growers said in a statement. "(It) was a major sticking point for Western senators and farm organizations, who rightfully objected to both the amendment itself and the process by which it was include."

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, who support an alternative farm bill, cited the water provision as one of many problems with the Senate Democratic bill that need fixing and bipartisan consensus next year.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said he voted against Democratic efforts to end a GOP filibuster and move forward with the farm bill because of Oregon farm groups' opposition to the water provision.

The proposal by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., along with increased funding for conservation programs, was agreed to by Agriculture Committee Chariman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The provision would authorize the U.S. Agriculture Department to devote up to 1.1 million acres of the 40-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program to the new water conservation program.

Normally under the CRP and similar programs, farmers who take land out of production to reduce soil erosion receive government payments. Reid's plan for the first time would give priority for setting aside farm and ranch land that enables the government to conserve, lease and acquire rights to water for environmental improvements. The program is aimed primarily at benefiting endangered, threatened and "sensitive" fish and wildlife and reducing Western conflicts and lawsuits over scarce water resources.

Western irrigators said a provision to require the government to obtain water only from "willing sellers" did not assuage their fears. They argued federal environmental regulations and policies can cause farmers to sell their water and land and drive them out of business.

The proposal is "a draconian attempt to reallocate water rights from private landowners and transfer them to the federal government for the purposes of improving habitat for endangered, threatened and sensitive species," several Oregon agriculture groups said in a joint letter sent to their state's senators on Dec. 17. "It will signal the end of water use in the West as we know it and disrupt state water laws created from more than a hundred years of precedent and history."

They cited the federal government's action earlier this year cutting off irrigation water to 1,100 growers in the Klamath Basin because of drought and endangered fish concerns. "Klamath Falls is but one example of how easy it is for the federal government to create "willing sellers," officials of the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen's Association, Oregon Wheat Growers League, Oregonians for Food and Shelter and Oregon Association of Nurserymen said in the letter.

They said junior water rights holders would be particularly vulnerable.

The letter said such a program would undermine support by the agricultural industry for "numerous and costly voluntary programs," such as the Oregon salmon plan and the Healthy Streams Partnership.

The American Farm Bureau Federation said another problem with the proposal is that "it will expand the scope of the Endangered Species Act to a new category of species that are not in fact threatened or endangered" -- sensitive species, a category usually defined by states or federal agency regulations.

Related sites:
Conservation Reserve Program
Oregon Salmon Plan
Healthy Stream Partnership

Larry Swisher , a columnist based in Washington, D.C., writes for Pacific Northwest newspapers.
Irrigators Concerned about Proposed Conservation Program
Capital Press, December 21, 2001

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