Just when you think Congress is on the verge of passing legislation known as “Build Back Better” that could provide $1.7 trillion in investments, including $9 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, we are now in a holding pattern again, which may be a generous way to describe it. While Democrats are in the majority in the United States Senate, it’s only because President Biden is in the White House, which gives Vice President Kamala Harris the deciding vote since the Senate is split evenly 50-50. Because Democrats have no margin for error and would require every single vote of their caucus, that has given certain senators, like Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, considerable power over what would ultimately be passed by the chamber and signed into law.
Senator Manchin has expressed a number of concerns with the proposal over the last several months, including the overall cost, and it is becoming clearer that the legislation as currently proposed is dead and negotiations will have to start again at square one. As we look forward, however, the senator has not indicated that his concerns have been with the aforementioned $9 billion. For supporters of irrigated agriculture and EQIP, that is good news. While we can reasonably assume that any future package would include funding for EQIP, it is far too early to assume what those details might look like, and even if another version of Build Back Better is released under a different name, the prospects could be similarly grim as the 2022 mid-term elections loom.
With the 2023 Farm Bill debate beginning to heat up in Washington, there will be another opportunity for the irrigation industry to tell its story to lawmakers, and the IA will be sure it has a seat at the table when these discussions occur.
While this is taking place, the attention of the agriculture community in Washington, D.C., is turning toward the next farm bill, which must be passed before Oct. 1, 2023. Funding decisions for the conservation title of the farm bill are always some of the more consequential and important discussions and help inform what all can be done. The larger the amount of funding provided to this title, the easier it is to split that funding among the numerous programs funded at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Irrigation Association was an active participant in the debate over the 2018 Farm Bill, actively advocating for increased funding for EQIP. It is unclear how including funding for EQIP in a separate package may impact the farm bill debate.
The IA also advocated for separate policy changes that would make the EQIP program work better for farmers looking to improve their irrigation efficiency. These include removing the requirement on irrigation history that disadvantages those farmers who have not had the previous opportunity to invest in an irrigation system and pushing for a recognition that the farm bill’s goal should be to support improved irrigated crop productivity, not only a focus on reduced use of water. Specifically on the latter policy change, the irrigation industry understands that improved irrigation efficiency can mean that water applied in the correct amount and at the correct time can produce greater yields even if the actual water saved doesn’t seem as great. Additionally, improved irrigation efficiency can also mean reduced inputs like fuel needed to pump water or physically visit a pivot and improved nutrient management. With the 2023 Farm Bill debate beginning to heat up in Washington, there will be another opportunity for the irrigation industry to tell its story to lawmakers, and the IA will be sure it has a seat at the table when these discussions occur.