Over the last few years, Dan Keppen, the executive director of Family Farm Alliance, and some like-minded agriculture industry members pushed to put aging water infrastructure on the front burner of Congress.
It was with the election of President Joe Biden in November 2020 that Keppen and his group saw an opportunity to push their efforts even further.
“It’s a challenge getting people excited in Congress about infrastructure, especially water infrastructure,” Keppen says. “And when people do talk about water infrastructure, it’s usually in terms of drinking water, like Flint, Michigan, sort of stuff.”
But Biden’s election was more than just a long-awaited opening to have their voices heard. This was a chance for national legislators to finally address water infrastructure, and most importantly, Western water infrastructure.
“We wanted to show that there was a need for our kinds of infrastructure, which is Western water, but we also wanted to make the list as broad as possible so that we could draw in as many organizations as possible, especially urban entities,” Keppen says. “It wasn’t just an agricultural focus like we’ve done in the past.”
A steering committee was born, consisting of organizations like Family Farm Alliance, Western Growers, California Farm Bureau Federation, Association of California Water Agencies and National Water Resources Association. With a lengthy, diverse wish list of infrastructures ranging from dams and canals to watershed programs and forest health, over 230 organizations signed on to the list that would be passed on to Congress.
“Our approach was, ‘Look, there are programs out there that can be accessed by folks from all over the Western United States,’” Keppen says. “‘Let’s just make sure we have enough money put into those authorizations.’ We didn’t really get into advocating for one project over another, although we encouraged the people from the individual states to do that on their own.”
Through the establishment of a communications network involving the Congress members of the Western United States, lobbyist efforts and a detailed justification for the dollars they asked for, a grand majority of their wish list moved into law with Biden’s signing of his $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Nov. 15, 2021.
In the bipartisan infrastructure law, the $8.3 billion for water infrastructure, over $500 million for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program, and several billion dollars for forest health and wildfire provisions came from the many ag and water organizations’ efforts.
“I think it was successful, because we had a lot of members and organizations behind it,” Keppen says. “But also, we had a drought happening and we could just point to the drought and say, ‘Look, we’re going to be better equipped to deal with these droughts in the future if you get a package like this pushed through.’
“We also always brought up climate change and how infrastructure is a good way to deal with mitigating and adaptively dealing with climate change impacts on hydrology.”
Some specific water infrastructure projects Keppen says will be tackled through the law include an imperial dam on the Arizona-California border, watershed planning and modernization projects in Oregon, provisions for the Yakima River Basin in Washington, and continuations for water storage projects in California, Washington and Idaho.
In January, the Bureau of Reclamation outlined its 2022 fiscal year spending plan, outlining exactly where the infrastructure law’s dollars will go toward. The bureau will receive $1.66 billion annually to support a range of infrastructure improvements for fiscal years 2022-2026.
Keppen advises irrigation ag professionals looking to get involved in the law to stay on top of the Bureau of Reclamation’s programs and keep close contact with irrigation districts and consulting firms to see what projects they have lined up.
“Almost on a weekly basis, there’s opportunities coming out for the various programs that are getting funded,” Keppen says.
For the water-based and ag-based industries spanning the West, the infrastructure bill carries an encompassing, deep impact.
“Water storage and conveyance structures across the Western United States help sustain agricultural operations that provides food, fuel and fiber for the whole nation,” says Coleman Garrison, the government and public affairs director for the Irrigation Association. “Signing this legislation into law is a win for these producers to provide them stable access to irrigation water for years to come.”
To Keppen, seeing what started as a dream of hopeful infrastructure funding turn into law was “a once-in-a-generation funding investment by the government.”
“I’ve been doing this stuff for over 30 years, and it’s the most I’ve ever seen be applied to our industry,” Keppen says. “It’s probably the most gratifying thing I’ve been involved with in my career.”
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