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January 14, 2022

Federal Government Affairs Column: New Federal Funds to Help Alleviate the Western Water Crisis

By Dennis Nuxoll, Vice President, Federal Government Affairs

As I type this column, it is the wet season across much of the West. Snow is falling or rain is being dumped on the landscape. At this time of year, for the unknowing, water concerns seem far away but farmers in the West know better. They know that we have seen historic drought conditions impact farms and communities throughout the West. We know that even one very wet rainy season probably will not break the cycle of water shortages we have seen recently.

Most farmers know that water infrastructure investments are essential to prepare for changing Western hydrological conditions, expanding populations, pressing environmental needs and other challenges. Farmers have long pointed out that our water infrastructure is old—in many cases as old if not older than the national highway system—and it needs to be modernized. Indeed, without immediate action to ensure adequate and well-functioning infrastructure, future droughts will result in increasingly devastating impacts. This inevitably will threaten the ability of existing systems to provide reliable water to our Western cities, farms and rural communities, many of which are already bearing economic, health, and environmental burdens.

In early November, President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. The focus of that bill is to modernize and upgrade the infrastructure of our country—something politicians have been talking about for years and years. Critically for us, the bill includes billions of dollars for Western water infrastructure. The package includes an “all of the above” approach to Western water. Rather than dictate projects to local jurisdiction, the bill adds significant resources across a broad variety of water-related accounts. This should allow local circumstances to dictate the types of projects that will be built. Solutions to the water crisis in Arizona are different than solutions in Washington, which are different than what Colorado needs. Billions of dollars will flow to repair, rebuild or replace existing infrastructure that is crumbling. Billions will go toward water recycling and desalination. Significant resources will be added for water conservation as well as dam safety and repair. In addition, money will help restore ecosystems and forest health, which in turn can help improve water quality.

In total the infrastructure bill allocates $8 billion specifically for Western water infrastructure projects across a wide array of project types so solutions can be customized. While these projects may not help with next year’s problems, if there are any, they will be critical to help build a more resilient water system to make sure that today’s farms survive for decades and decades.

Securing these resources did not happen by accident. Since before the 2020 election, Western Growers has been working on this issue. With infrastructure as the topic, we believed that there would be a major opportunity to work with politicians on both sides of the aisle. So we first helped to put together a coalition from every Western state to ensure that water was included in any infrastructure package that would move during 2021.

For many elected leaders, especially those east of the Rockies, when you say water infrastructure you only mean lead pipes or maybe flood control. Water shortage and water quantity issues rarely come up. More than 250 organizations—agricultural groups, rural water districts and urban water providers—joined the coalition focused on pushing Western Congressional and Senate leaders who are concerned about water scarcity.

Our goal was to ensure that significant dollars were allocated to repair existing infrastructure that is crumbling, to conserve water, to build new water conveyance, to create green infrastructure and to construct conventional steel and concrete storage. After organizing the coalition, we engaged Congress through direct action with member offices as well as a focused public communication campaign in which we engaged the press across the West to bring the issue to the forefront. With the ever-present drought throughout the West during 2021, linking our solution to this ongoing problem was a winning strategy. Months, and in many cases years, of hard work paid off as Western Growers and our coalition partners were able to secure $8 billion in funding for Western water priorities as part of the bipartisan reconciliation package. That package contains most of the priorities our coalition put forward.

Western Growers is not done, however. We, and our coalition partners, will now be working with the Biden Administration to make sure these funds become available as quickly as possible. We want projects built to help our communities as fast as we can to ensure our future. These projects often have the added benefit of creating good paying jobs for our rural communities.