June 21, 2023

Wyden, Merkley Introduce Legislation to Improve Water Access for Agriculture and Conservation as West Continues to Face Drought

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., today reintroduced the Water for Conservation and Farming Act to help communities in Oregon and across the West suffering from ongoing drought. Their bill will improve water access for agriculture and conservation by funding projects that improve dam safety, create more resilient watersheds and benefit agricultural and urban water users. 

“On this first day of summer and at a time when the nation – especially Oregon and the entire West – is suffering increased droughts, when farmers and ranchers are asked to feed more with less water, and critical habitats are drying up, more must be done to align water availability with water needs,” Wyden said. “Our bill will make needed investments in water conservation infrastructure that allows available water to better meet demand, improves biodiversity, and helps farmers and ranchers sustain their livelihoods through drought.”

“As our summers continue to get hotter and drier, we have to make sure that we have reliable, resilient water infrastructure that every farmer, tribe, and community in our state can count on,” said Merkley, whose Deschutes River Conservancy Reauthorization Act is included in this bill. “Passing this bill will help ensure crucial investments for environmental protections are available and put safe water access within reach for everyone, regardless of where they live.”

States, Tribes and local communities are working diligently to upgrade antiquated and failing water infrastructure but have lacked the critical investments to make meaningful improvements for the future. The Water for Conservation and Farming Act would provide critical resources for projects that support agriculture, provide multiple water benefits and make significant steps to improve the nation’s agricultural water supply.

The Water for Conservation and Farming Act of 2023:

  • Creates a Bureau of Reclamation fund of $300 million to support water recycling projects, water-use efficiency projects and dam safety projects;
  • Expands the WaterSMART program to increase water supply reliability by funding infrastructure and conservation projects that conserves water, increases water use efficiency and improves the condition of natural water recharge infrastructure;
  • Establishes a $3.5 million waterbird and shorebird habitat program to provide incentives to farmers to create temporary habitat for bird migration;
  • Authorizes $40 million for the Department of the Interior’s Cooperative Watershed Management Program, for water and conservation projects that support disadvantaged communities and generate environmental benefits, such as benefits to fisheries, wildlife and habitats;
  • Improves drought planning and preparedness by requiring federal agencies to prepare a plan to sustain the survival of critically important fisheries during eras of drought;
  • Authorizes $25 million through 2029 for fish passage projects under the Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act to support voluntary fish screen and passage projects in Oregon, Washington, California, Montana and Idaho; and
  • Reauthorizes the Deschutes River Conservancy’s (DRC) eligibility to receive federal funding for water quality and conservation projects.

The Water for Conservation and Farming Act was first introduced in 2020, with several provisions included in the spending package passed into law in December 2020, including provisions to improve drinking water quality and supply, especially for disadvantaged communities, through community watershed management; establish an aquatic ecosystem restoration program to improve the health of fisheries, wildlife or aquatic habitat; and ensure non-profit organizations, in addition to farmers and ranchers have access to increased WaterSMART funding. Additional provisions of the legislation, including for multi-benefit projects to improve watershed health, passed as part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which also included an additional $5 billion to help farmers, ranchers and communities respond to drought.

Bill text can be found here.