Short-term and long-term solutions to the Western drought were the topic of Tuesday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. Family Farm Alliance President Patrick O’Toole’s unscripted, heartfelt testimony about the drought’s impact to Western farmers and ranchers was a hearing highlight.“If we don’t act, we won’t have farms, and we won’t have rural communities,” he said at the hearing.
Mr. O’Toole told the Committee that he believes water storage and improving forest health are important steps to addressing the severe ongoing drought in the West. While other witnesses testified that additional “agricultural conservation and demand management actions are needed” to shore up dwindling Colorado River supplies, he cautioned that taking water away from farms would increase the amount of food the U.S. needs to import from other countries.
“We are about to do with agriculture what we did with manufacturing and let it go overseas,” he warned the Committee Members.
“Thank you for that amazing opening statement,” said Committee Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) to Mr. O’Toole. “You never checked a note, you talked from the heart…very emotional. You hit every member of the panel. I’m very grateful for you to be here.
”Earlier on in the hearing, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton emphasized that between 2-4 million acre-feet of “conservation and demand management” actions are needed in the Colorado River Basin, starting in 2023.
“Let’s get to the table, and let’s figure this out by August,” Touton said. “That’s what we’re working towards.”
John Enstminger (Southern Nevada Water Authority) summarized urban efforts to reduce per-capita water use and echoed Commissioner Touton’s comments, suggesting that agriculture must also cut its consumption. He further suggested that farmers reconsider growing crops like alfalfa. The solution, he said, is working toward “a degree of demand management previously considered unattainable.”
“What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near,” said Mr. Enstminger.
He also noted that SNWA is planning to serve a population that will swell to 3.8 million by 2072.
In his written testimony, Mr. O’Toole pointed out the domino effect of drought in the West, highlighted the recent brutal Western wildfires, and concluded by emphasizing the importance of local decision-making in Western water management.
“Today’s hearing could not come at a better time. Americans are facing rising food costs and the potential for global famine looms on the horizon,” the Alliance testimony stated. “Amid concerns of higher food prices and growing concerns of a looming global wheat shortage, the recent national infant formula shortage has further underscored the importance of a strong national domestic food supply system.”
Senator Barrasso and Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV) also agreed that the Western drought is tied to food insecurity and higher prices.
“It doesn’t matter where you live, drought has a domino effect that indirectly spills over into the lives of all Americans, from the economic losses, to wildfires, to food scarcities and higher food prices,” Chairman Manchin said. “The historic significance of this period should serve as a wake-up call to the entire country.”
Ranking Member Barrasso explained that drought denies water to vital grazing lands and alfalfa fields necessary for feeding and raising cattle. This can result in significant economic impacts for communities that depend on agriculture and ranching to create jobs.
“When the farms and ranches stop producing because of lack of water, it does not just put farmers and ranchers out of work,” said Senator Barrasso. “It increases the cost of food. This hits families in the West and across the country who can afford it the least.”
The Colorado River was the primary focus of discussion at the hearing, due in part to the obvious interest of Senators Barrasso (WY), Lee (UT), Kelly (AZ), and Cortez-Masto (NV), all of whom engaged the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing.
“The problems and impacts of drought are clear,” said Senator Barrasso. “What Westerners need are solutions.”
For more information on Pat O’Toole’s testimony and the hearing, click here.
Here’s the video link to the hearing.