Grim 2021 Outlook for Western Irrigators

Drought Underscores the Importance of Protecting Western Agriculture

A rare “Joint Statement” was issued yesterday from U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in response to the worsening drought conditions in the West.

“Our agencies are actively working with Oregon, California and other western states to coordinate resources and identify immediate financial and technical assistance for impacted irrigators and Tribes,” the Secretaries stated, committing to “an all-hands-on-deck approach that both minimizes the impacts of the drought and develops a long-term plan to facilitate conservation and economic growth.” 

Farmers served by the Klamath Irrigation Project along the California-Oregon border are facing historically low water allocations. Yesterday three Project irrigation districts and the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) issued a heartfelt message to the local news and community in this joint letter, sharing their concern for the repercussions this will have on farmers and the workforce. 

“We are well-aware of the impact to the business community that is reliant on agricultural production in the basin, and we are very sorry for the pain they will experience,” the letter says.

Signed by presidents of KWUA, Klamath Irrigation District, Tulelake Irrigation District, and Klamath Drainage District, the letter calls for unity while condemning “action that is counterproductive or unlawful,” as tension escalates in the surrounding area. The letter closes with a somber yet urgent message:

“Take care of your families. Take care of your neighbors.” 

Further south, neighboring California is in a critically dry year, the same as in 2015. Water will be extremely tight for thousands of farmers around the state, and many of them have already received notice that their water supplies are being cut by up to 95 percent.

California is the No. 1 farm state in the nation with tens of thousands of agricultural jobs, with wages at all income levels covering all 58 counties. When farms aren’t growing food for people, it affects jobs, personal income, and their quality of life. In addition, farm-related jobs contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to state and local tax revenue which provide services local communities value, like police, firefighters and teachers.

The California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC) yesterday posted a blog that explains what the devastating drought of 2015 can tell us about the impacts of a drought in 2021. 

“Taking a look back at a similar water year can help us understand what is likely to be in store for us through the rest of this year and possibly beyond,” said CFWC Executive Director Mike Wade.

The Family Farm Alliance, CFWC and other Western agriculture and water organizations believe the drought underscores the urgent need to take immediate action to help better manage impacts to water resources from drought in the West.

“We need to reauthorize and fund federal programs to partner on new federal and non-federal water storage and groundwater recharge projects. This includes extending provisions in the WIIN Act of 2016,” said Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen. “Funding must be provided to the aging federal infrastructure account created last year by Congress, and the best science must drive decisions regarding the management of water supplies for agriculture, cities, and the environment.” 

The Family Farm Alliance is a grassroots organization of family farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts, and allied industries in 16 Western states.  

“We are driven by our belief that Western irrigated agriculture must be preserved and protected for a host of reasons,” said Alliance President Patrick O’Toole, whose family owns a sheep and cattle ranch in Wyoming. “The Family Farm Alliance stands committed to our Western irrigators and we express our deepest concern for their well-being during this difficult time.”

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