Infrastructure funding should include irrigation modernization, a proven collaborative approach

Infrastructure funding should include irrigation modernization, a proven collaborative approach
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As the focus on infrastructure retakes center stage in Washington, we hope lawmakers don’t overlook a prime opportunity to invest in Western water and irrigation systems. Here in the West, our dams, irrigation systems, canals and other infrastructure — much of it more than a century old — are past due for modernization.

This is low-hanging fruit for infrastructure repair — and it’s a bipartisan political winner, too.  The 2018 Farm Bill recognized this opportunity to help prepare producers and watersheds for drought in the West.

A new era of water collaboration is already well under way in some watersheds and producing surprising success stories. Water users and conservationists are putting aside old grudges and working together to find real solutions to the tough challenges we face in a time of drought and water scarcity.

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This was the case earlier this spring, near Sisters, Oregon, when a diverse group of solution-driven interests gathered to celebrate the progress made when people of different backgrounds and political persuasions come together to solve problems in a practical way.

The Tumalo Irrigation District celebrated the completion of their modernization project, installing 8,500 feet of 7-foot diameter pipe, saving over 2 million gallons of water a day during the irrigation season. Significantly, the conserved water will contribute to the watershed-wide effort to restore flows to the Deschutes River and its tributaries for the reintroduction of imperiled salmon and steelhead; that effort also seeks to modernize irrigation infrastructure and sustain irrigated agriculture in the basin.

Another innovative project demonstrating on-farm hydro generation was also showcased. Designed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) the new 200kW small hydro facility will generate enough power to serve over 75 homes.

New Farm Bill authority signed into law in December of 2018 will make more of these kinds of multi-benefit projects possible.  For the first time, the NRCS can now partner with irrigation districts or canal companies on projects that “effectively conserve water, provide fish and wildlife habitat, or provide for drought-related environmental mitigation” where such projects are part of a larger “watershed-wide project.”  The Tumalo and Three Sisters Irrigation Districts’ modernization investments in partnership with the NRCS are excellent examples of projects part of a “watershed-wide project” that provide water conservation benefits for fish habitat and drought resilience.  

Our two organizations worked hard several years ago to help create the Western Agriculture and Conservation Coalition (WACC), a collaborative effort with the goal of finding ways to improve the environment and western irrigated agriculture, and keep farmers and ranchers in business.  In working to obtain the new Farm Bill authority, WACC members shared with legislators their experience with such multi-benefit projects in western river basins, relying on our project demonstrations that irrigation infrastructure modernization provides water conservation benefits for fish habitat, drought resilience, and sustaining rural communities.

Americans are pragmatists — we believe in innovation and creative problem-solving. That’s especially true here in the West. If there is a desire to jumpstart investments in projects that make a real difference in people’s lives and communities, water infrastructure modernization in the West should be at the top of the to-do list.

Dan Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a non-profit organization representing irrigated agriculture in the 17 Western States. He lives in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Laura Ziemer is Senior Counsel and Water Policy Advisor for Trout Unlimited, whose mission is to conserve, protect and restore North America's coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.