Congress moves forward on infrastructure packages

Legislative update | Fall 2021

President Biden’s first year in office moves into the fall, Congress continues to work on efforts to implement his agenda aimed at moving the country past the COVID pandemic with the goal of setting the United States economy on stable footing. This work has centered on two separate but closely intermingled efforts, the first of which is an approximately $1 trillion infrastructure package.

This legislative package, which passed the Senate in early August, included approximately $8.3 billion focused on Western water needs. Municipalities and farmers across the Western United States rely on water supplies from Bureau of Reclamation projects for personal water use and irrigation water supply. Ensuring an adequate water supply has always been a priority of the federal government and was the primary reason for the creation of Reclamation. However, the current extended drought, which has recently required Reclamation to announce its first-ever water shortage declaration for Lake Mead and the lower Colorado River Basin, has only exacerbated these needs.

This package includes $3.2 billion to rehabilitate and replace aging water infrastructure and $1.15 billion for new projects focused on surface and groundwater storage as well as new conveyance structures. While these projects will not flip a switch and remove the need to promote efficient water use, they should help mitigate future drought events by ensuring the available supply of water for all users is sufficient.

Although this package passed out of the Senate on a bipartisan basis, its future is uncertain as the Democratic majority in both the House and Senate chambers work to also pass a proposed $3.5 trillion “soft” or “human” infrastructure package. Unlike the “hard” $1.5 trillion package, which funds physical projects like roads, bridges, and the dams and water structures mentioned above, the larger package funds programs that focus on health care, education and climate change. Although the current farm bill doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2023, there are efforts to include funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program as part of the larger package’s focus on agriculture’s role in addressing climate change. Increased EQIP funding could go directly to drought preparation and mitigation in the West alongside increased investments in on-farm irrigation system upgrades that help increase yields while improving water efficiency.

The IA continues to closely monitor these efforts and has written to Congress in support of projects that increase water supply and improve irrigation efficiency.

As mentioned earlier, the intermingled paths of each package make the likelihood of either getting ultimately signed into law uncertain. Some more progressive Democrats want to only pass the first package if it is moved alongside the larger package to ensure the latter is signed into law. However, more moderate Democrats, some of whom balk at the large price tag and fear the larger package stands little chance of passing the House or the Senate, want to move the $1.5 trillion package alone sensing that if the two are tied together, neither will ultimately pass. While 19 Republicans joined the Democratic majority in passing the first infrastructure package in early August, with a 50-vote majority in the Senate and no Republican expected to vote in favor of the $3.5 trillion package, Democrats in the Senate can’t lose a single vote.

The IA continues to closely monitor these efforts and has written to Congress in support of projects that increase water supply and improve irrigation efficiency. As Congress returned to Washington, D.C., in mid-September, it was still unclear exactly what path each of these priorities of President Biden’s first year in office would take.

Coleman Garrison is the Irrigation Association’s government and public affairs director.



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