When we think of federal water policy, we think Bureau of Reclamation or EPA. But just as agriculture is where the water is, federal agriculture agencies are where the money is. Ellen Hanak of the Public Policy Institute of California had a post yesterday with some useful suggestions for spending it well:
Practical reforms in easement programs could yield drought-management results. The wetland recovery program pays farmers to permanently restore fields to wetlands, and the conservation reserve program pays them to convert fields to cover crops for 10–15 years. But such long-term commitments to fallow lands are unappealing to many farmers.
These programs could be more effective by allowing shorter easements and working with groups of farmers rather than individuals. For instance, paying farmers to create temporary wetlands during droughts can stretch scarce water and dollars while supporting waterbirds. Similarly, paying a group of farmers to do rotational fallowing—which means they take turns temporarily fallowing fields—can reduce overall water use while keeping farms in production. Meanwhile, other incentives could focus on farmers who commit to maintaining land in field crops rather than permanent crops—a change that could boost drought resilience in places like California, which has seen a big expansion of tree crops that are harder to fallow.