Triple threat to ag: Development, restoration, climate issues mount

Triple threat to ag: Development, restoration, climate issues mount

Capital Press article discussing a recent Family Farm Alliance report titled “Water Supply in a Changing Climate.”

By Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press
September 14, 2007


According to a recent report by the Family Farm Alliance, more storage facilities and canals like this one are needed to help irrigated agriculture overcome pressures from urbanization, conservation and climate change. – Capital Press file

Western farmers now face three major threats to their water supply, a report from the Family Farm Alliance says.

Not only has irrigated agriculture become a “buffer zone” in the competition for water between urban development and environmental restoration but climate change is expected to diminish snowpacks, the report said.

“Agriculture is being seen as a reservoir,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the group.

Over the past three decades, water has increasingly been diverted to satisfy the needs of growing metropolitan areas or used to boost flow in rivers and streams, but storage reservoir projects have been at a standstill, he said.

The result: Farmers are left with a shrinking portion of the pie. If rising temperatures deplete snow packs, reduce groundwater recharge and boost crop irrigation needs due to evapotranspiration, the pie itself will contract.

As less water is stored in the snowpack and runs off earlier in the season, it will be imperative to build more reservoirs to accrue that supply for use later in the year, according to the report, “Water Supply in a Changing Climate.”

“You want to be able to capture that water,” said Keppen.

Reduced usage will continue to play an important role, but it cannot be the sole strategy for dealing with climate change and insufficient water, according to the report.

“It is simply ludicrous to believe that conservation alone will supply enough water for the tens of millions of new residents expected to arrive in Western cities during the coming decades,” the report states.

Up until now, the preferred method has been to target agriculture by leasing or buying out water rights, said Keppen. However, it’s possible to avoid unfairly impacting this important sector of the U.S. economy and society by enhancing storage capacity, he said.

So what’s the hold up? Layers upon layers of bureaucracy, Keppen said.

The Bureau of Reclamation has identified 900 possible reservoir projects across the country, but none have moved passed the feasibility study stage and actually had shovels hit the dirt, he said.

“There are many storage sites out there waiting to be developed,” he said.

However, such proposals are typically stalled by seemingly endless requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act, Keppen said.

The problem is compounded because projects are often delayed for long periods of time, he said. So when there’s turnover in the agencies that administer these laws, the applicants come under fresh scrutiny from new employees, Keppen said.

“The goal line is constantly shifting,” he said.

For example, Keppen cites the case of a rancher from Wyoming who wanted to build a relatively small, 15,000 acre-foot facility. He did eventually acquire all the necessary permits and was given permission to build – after 20 years, Keppen said.

The actual construction took only three months, he said.

“The incredible maze of regulations makes it almost impossible,” Keppen said.

Keppen doesn’t advocate overturning or “gutting” these laws so as to make them ineffectual – but he does want to see them streamlined so applicants know what to expect from the process.

“There needs to be a one-stop shop,” he said.

Growers, irrigation districts or other entities should be informed exactly what they will need to do to comply with requirements – and make those expectations binding for the agencies involved, Keppen said. That way, applicants feel as if they’re heading toward a goal, rather than running on a treadmill.

It will also be important to open up federal agencies’ decisions and policies to scientific scrutiny, which would help prevent environmental laws from being used as political tools, he said.

“Peer review and the opportunity for local agencies (like irrigation districts) to have a seat at the table with federal agencies and biologists would be critical,” Keppen said.

Environmental groups, on the other hand, take a skeptical view of the Family Farm Alliance’s suggestions.

Water storage does have a role to play, but any new development must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past, which caused environmental degradation, said John DeVoe, executive director of Water Watch of Oregon.

“We can’t simply shave off the top of our hydrograph and think it has no impact on our rivers and their inhabitants,” he said.

DeVoe doesn’t oppose building new reservoirs, provided they are properly sited.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said.

However, he also doesn’t believe such projects should take precedence over conservation – particularly since cities such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle have shown great strides in cutting their water consumption.

“We need to evaluate the demand side of the water equation,” DeVoe said, noting that conservation strategies can offset the effect of increasing urban populations. “It’s a myth that population growth corresponds with increased demand for water, at least at the municipal level.”