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Why a National Infrastructure Bill Needs Money for Western Irrigation

Farmers and conservationists have already demonstrated that collaborative water projects work, but more funding is needed, say representatives from Trout Unlimited and the Family Farm Alliance.

Written by Laura Ziemer, Dan Keppen Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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The Yakima River Canyon, as seen in July 2004 north of Selah, Wash. The Kittitas Reclamation District and other stakeholders have implemented projects to improve irrigation in order to save water and benefit fish and farms.AP/Daily Record, David Dick

After the first 100 days of the new administration, Washington, D.C., and Congress look more deeply divided and bitterly partisan than ever. While the political differences run deep and can’t be papered over, it’s also true that Americans are hungering for real solutions and pragmatic compromise on key issues.

One approach that both parties agree on is the need for large infrastructure investments in roads, bridges and other systems to help keep the economy running.

The Trump administration and Congress shouldn’t overlook a prime opportunity to invest in infrastructure: Western water and irrigation systems. Here in the West, our dams, irrigation systems, canals and other infrastructure – much of it more than a century old – are past due for modernization.

This is low-hanging fruit for infrastructure repair – and it’s a bipartisan political winner, too.

A new era of water collaboration is already well under way in some watersheds and producing surprising success stories. Water users and conservationists are putting aside old “water is for fighting” myths and working together to find real solutions to the tough challenges we face in a time of drought and water scarcity.

Modernization projects have multiple benefits, including reducing operational costs and enhancing the reliability of irrigation water, while also helping to repair local watersheds; moreover, working within a collaborative effort can streamline the process for permitting and financing projects.

Many of our rural communities in the West are struggling. They’ve missed out on the economic growth that has pulled many parts of the country out of the Great Recession.

Landscape-scale partnerships and investments are one of the keys to getting rural economies moving again. Our organizations – the Family Farm Alliance and Trout Unlimited – made up of agricultural producers and conservationists, seek to find a balanced approach that achieves both river health and economic prosperity – call it the “constructive center.”

We call on the Trump administration’s and Congress’ infrastructure plan to include investments in western irrigation infrastructure.

We’ve seen it work already in numerous large-scale projects across the West:

  • The Yakima River basin in eastern Washington – like many rivers in the West, the lifeblood of local farms, communities and recreation economy – has been hit hard by drought conditions in recent years. The Kittitas Reclamation District, working in partnership with Trout Unlimited, the Washington State Department of Ecology and other stakeholders, has implemented a number of large-scale canal lining and ditch piping projects to produce on-demand water and significant water savings that help keep Yakima tributaries flowing to benefit farms, communities and salmon and steelhead populations. It’s part of a larger, visionary public-private conservation effort that promises a revitalization of water supplies, agriculture, fish and wildlife, and recreation across the Basin – but its huge potential can only be met if they get the needed federal share of funding from Congress.
  • On the Sun River in Montana, which suffered from chronic dewatering, irrigators and conservationists put aside squabbles to launch an ambitious effort to upgrade irrigation infrastructure and restore river health. With funding from the Department of Interior’s WaterSMART program, the Coca-Cola Company, and local and state sources, Trout Unlimited and local ranchers and irrigators overhauled the irrigation system, lined leaky canals and installed efficient center-pivot irrigation systems, improving water delivery and restoring flows. Each year, the new system saves 10,000 acre-feet of water, which is managed to benefit both farms and fish – more than doubling the number of wild trout in the Sun River.

Since 2010, some $135 million in WaterSMART grants have been used to leverage more than $395 million in water delivery improvements across 15 Western states. This is real progress in meeting the serious challenge of water security in the West. But more could be done with ramped up investment. There are as many as five times more applications for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART funding as there are awards for projects. A bipartisan national infrastructure package that invests in western irrigation infrastructure through Reclamation’s WaterSMART program would deliver a win for everyone.

Americans are pragmatists – we believe in innovation and creative problem-solving. That’s especially true here in the West. When the going gets tough, we’re willing to work in partnership with our neighbors to get things done. If the Trump Administration aims to jumpstart investments in projects that make a real difference in people’s live and communities, then they should put water infrastructure modernization in the West at the top of the to-do list.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and work together on solutions that benefit all Americans.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply. This op-ed was first published in The Hill.

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