The farm bill and water policy

Wayne Bossert, who manages the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4 on the famed Ogallala Aquifer, raised the interesting issue recently in testimony at a Senate field hearing of the effect of federal agricultural policy on water:

Historically the farm bill has been blamed for promoting fencerow-to-fencerow corn production due to it’s design and implementation, which of course, does little for curbing water use in irrigated ag areas. So, we were thinking that a farm bill that would promote less water intensive cropping choices – especially in water stressed or enhanced management areas – could conserve water at no additional program cost. This is apparently a very difficult thing to do, but we asked again, anyway.

We also asked for a crop insurance program that would insure limited irrigation operations. This would actually reduce liability and be less expensive than the current program. It’d allow irrigators to implement a water conserving, limited irrigation plan on land that had been fully irrigated, but also receive a critical level of crop insurance discounted proportionately with the expected yield goals of their limited irrigation plan. This could save a lot of water as well, so we asked for it.

We also asked that NRCS EQIP and AWEP programs support partial water use set asides – allowing producers to enroll the least efficient portions of their irrigation operations rather than the entire irrigated acreages. The water conservation would be the same, at reduced program costs, while returning a higher economic return for the producer.

When I asked around about this issue, I couldn’t find folks here in New Mexico tracking this issue in terms of water use here, but a friend pointed me to the work of George Frisvold (this from 2004):

Agriculture accounts for 80% of U.S. consumptive use of freshwater and has been identified as the largest contributor to nonpoint source water pollution. Over the last 20 years, agricultural policy reforms have greatly reduced, though not eliminated, incentives to overuse water and chemical inputs and have improved targeting of conservation programs to achieve environmental benefits. Recent changes provide greater incentives for voluntary reallocation of water from agriculture to other uses.

I’d love pointers to other folks thinking about this issue.


  1. Thinking so sensible it is worth pursuing. My sense is that many argue compelling empirical points and policy principles like this, but that they are unable to overcome the processes of political agency.

  2. John: Thanks for taking up these issues. While I tend to agree with George Frisvold, I have to say that the issue I am pursuing is NOT irrigation overuse, but reduced irrigation use. There is a difference. Much work has been done in the past 20 years focusing on eliminating overuse, but we’re trying to restructure these same tools to help us reduce use – to extend the economic life of the aquifer.

    And I’m not even going to get into the efficient water use arguments which have also been the main focus of the past 20 years, which you may recall I have argued have done little to nothing to reduce the consumptive water use that has been the cause of our groundwater declines.

    Everything we have asked for is designed to reduce consumptive water use – with as little economic impact as possible – only in specified management areas that are required to reduce water use, or have chosen to do so. Keep in mind it is also only for areas that have controls on new development.

    I agree with John Bass as well. Getting the federal agencies to turn their ship in these ways is tough to overcome. But we’ll keep asking, anyway. Thanks again.

  3. Oh, by the way, in Kansas others are also thinking along these lines. Governor Sam Brownback made oral comments at the field hearing along these same lines, and was speaking on behalf of several state agencies when he did so – the Kansas Water Office and the Kansas Department of Agriculture to name but two. If you pursue these issues, these agencies might be good ones to contact. Let me know if you need specific contact information.

  4. This: “Over the last 20 years, agricultural policy reforms have greatly reduced, though not eliminated, incentives to overuse water and chemical inputs and have improved targeting of conservation programs to achieve environmental benefits.” is NOT true. The corn ethanol policy ALONE has resulted in more water use and more water pollution.

    I’d prefer to start anew, without ANY ag policy — so that farmers would grow what’s more profitable according to market forces.

    But — ag bill or not — there are always ways to reduce waste/improve sustainable water use. It depends on how the “locals” (in the watershed) handle competing claims.

  5. ps/ “To facilitate efficient water use, policymakers could reconsider subsidies that support the use of water at prices that do not reflect opportunity costs, as well as subsidies for agricultural production that encourage additional planting and excess irrigation. The government could also assess the impact of refining or expanding programs that address the demand for water directly—using approaches such as cost sharing for improvements to irrigation systems and conservation plans for irrigators who get
    water from federal infrastructure projects.”

    CBO (2006):

  6. This is largely unrelated, but discussions of farm policy always remind of this statement from PJ O’Rourke’s book “Parliament of Whores”:
    “U.S. farm policy is, along with North Korea and the Stanford liberal arts faculty, one of the world’s last outposts of anti-free-market dogmatism.”
    It’s dated and it’s hyperbole, but it’s from a pretty damn entertaining book. And it still contains some great insight.

Comments are closed.