Commentary: The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is set to be zeroed out, but it is a key source of water project funding.
Public listening sessions recently kicked off by the Congressional agriculture committees are an early sign that talks have begun on the new American farm bill.
The farm bill is an omnibus, multiyear law that governs an array of agricultural and food programs. Titles in the most recent farm bill included farm commodity price and income supports, agricultural conservation, farm credit, trade, research, rural development, bioenergy, foreign food aid and domestic nutrition assistance. The Congressional Research Service notes that because it is renewed about every five years, the farm bill “provides a predictable opportunity for policymakers to comprehensively and periodically address agricultural and food issues”. The current farm bill expires in 2018.
The farm bill was a primary topic of discussion for the Family Farm Alliance representatives who took part in the 2017 Farmer Lobbyist Fly-In to Washington, D.C., in June. This year’s participants advocated for reauthorization of the farm bill that maintains funding for the conservation title, and that makes the farm bill’s programs work better for producers in the West. Many producers in the West use irrigation water delivery systems that are shared among multiple producers, such as irrigation districts, canal companies or mutual ditch companies. Optimal delivery of the farm bill’s conservation title benefits to Western producers requires the flexibility to work directly with these multi-producer water delivery entities.
We have developed specific statutory recommendations intended to remove some of the existing contracting barriers for Western producers, and make the farm bill’s conservation title programs more accessible and relevant to Western producers.
Keeping a program alive
One successful program we like is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which, unfortunately, has been proposed to be zeroed out in the President Donald Trump administration budget proposal for fiscal year 2018. RCPP ensures that government funding for water quantity and quality projects will focus on the appropriate scale to achieve meaningful results.
The program is designed so that producers and partners on the ground design the projects, rather than agency officials in Washington. Local engagement with conservation is among the most important means for promoting success of the effort.
In the West, producers — often in partnership with constructive conservation groups — have worked in a variety of RCPPs. Examples include drought-resilient ranching in the high desert of the Owyhee River basin; conservation practices that generate better air quality and wildlife habitat on the Salton Sea’s rapidly exposing playa; and a project in the Klamath Basin where ranchers and conservation interests are working on projects to improve water delivery and pasture condition, while also reducing out-of-stream diversions from designated critical habitat for Endangered Species Act-listed bull trout and Klamath redband trout.
Rather than cutting or eliminating the RCPP, the Trump administration should be working with Congress and stakeholders to improve the operation of that program and streamline contracting. The concept of allowing trade associations, nonprofits or other qualified entities to help farmers and ranchers aggregate projects to bring more scale to conservation dollars spent is an idea worthy of refinement and expansion — not elimination.