IRA to target Western drought, ag investment

The law will provide $5 billion for drought relief efforts and $40 billion for ag, forestry and rural community investment.
BY MCKENNA CORSON
The Inflation Reduction Act became law Aug. 16, moving billions for Western drought relief and ag, forestry and rural community investment.

President Joe Biden signed the multibillion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 into law Aug. 16, putting into formal motion funding including $4 billion for drought relief efforts and $40 billion for ag, forestry and rural community investment, all in the Western U.S.

Putting a spotlight on Western drought was a vital addition to the IRA, explains Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, Klamath Falls, Oregon. The FFA and several Western ag organizations formed a coalition and penned a July 29 letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joseph Manchin asking for Western water security and emergency drought response provisions to be added to the bill.

“This is a really extraordinary drought that we’re facing, and it requires extraordinary attention by the government to deal with it,” says Keppen.

The coalition’s initial ask sought $5 billion in funding over the course of 10 years with flexibility for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to use the money to tackle drought.

“The priority was the Colorado River, because it’s facing a major crisis in the next couple of years,” Keppen says. “And there’s a short-term effort underway to try to generate some water that can be kept behind the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead to avoid Lake Mead from hitting dead pool in a couple of years, which would be devastating for tens of millions of people.”

By the time the bill’s language, backed by a group of senators from Arizona, California, Colorado and Nevada, was pushed forward to Senate leadership and back, Western drought funding was included to receive $4 billion to be spent over the next four years.

The drought funds allocated by H.R. 5376 sponsored by John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, will remain available for 17 reclamation states, “with priority given to the Colorado River Basin and other basins experiencing comparable levels of long-term drought,” according to the law.

Administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, the $4 billion will go toward grants, contracts or financial assistance that intend to mitigate drought via voluntary reduced water use and diversions, water conservation projects, environmental efforts, and ecosystem and habitat restoration projects in drought-impacted river basins or inland water bodies, like the Salton Sea in California.

Growers, rural districts and others could be paid to fallow crops and install efficient irrigation methods. For the about 40 million people across seven U.S. states and Mexico who use the Colorado River’s Lower and Upper Basins for drinking water and irrigation, they could receive payment to voluntarily reduce water use.

“The reality is that there’s a water shortage,” Keppen says. “In the short term, the best thing that can be done is to try to compensate farmers and irrigation districts to take actions to use less water to back that water up to avoid the entire system from crashing.’’

The $40 billion for ag, forestry and rural community investment will target climate-smart agriculture programs, biofuel development, forest restoration work, wildfire resilience, renewable energy tax credits, conservation technical assistance and rural electric cooperative carbon capture, and storage and resilience projects. Given to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $20 billion will be divided to its various conservation programs, namely to its Environmental Quality Incentives Program, to help farmers and ranchers implement and expand climate-smart practices, incentivize sustainable practices and expand public-private partnerships to support conservation.

“The IRA provides significant additional resources for USDA conservation programs, especially EQIP, that will help farmers respond to a changing climate,” says Nathan Bowen, advocacy director at the Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia. “Ensuring farmers have the resources they need to do their jobs is critically important for the irrigation industry, and we are committed to working with USDA and producer organizations as the IRA is implemented.”

For Western ag professionals looking to follow how the IRA funding will be doled out, Keppen advises they keep an eye out for Bureau of Reclamation webinars and USDA updates.

The passing of IRA closely follows the November 2021 passing of the trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $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.

“What we’re seeing is really a once-in-a-generation federal investment in both infrastructure and drought reaction and mitigation funds that I doubt we’ll ever see again,” Keppen says. “There really is an opportunity to do some good things here, not just with the Colorado River Basin, but the rest of the West.”

McKenna Corson is the digital content editor for Irrigation Today and can be reached at mckennacorson@irrigation.org.

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