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Provision for acequia insurance hanging in balance as U.S. House and Senate debate Farm Bill

Members of a flood-damaged acequia clear the irrigation channel during the annual cleaning April 8, 2023, in the burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire. The version of the Farm Bill released by the House late last week does not include a provision codifying acequias’ eligibility for a federal crop insurance program. Patrick Lohmann/Source NM
The Farm Bill is already a year late after expiring in 2023 over disagreements

In their 942-page Farm Bill proposal released late last week, Republican House leaders did not include a provision that would preserve insurance for acequia associations facing lower crop yields amid multi-year drought.

Keeping acequias eligible for the insurance, a provision touted by members of the New Mexico congressional delegation, is among many differences between the Senate Democrats and House Republicans plans for the twice-a-decade Farm Bill that needs to be renewed by Sept. 30.

The Farm Bill is already a year late, after expiring in September 2023 over disagreements between the split Congress on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, crop insurance and other aspects of the legislation.

The House’s version would spend up to $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. While the Senate has not yet released the full text of its version of the Senate bill, or provide an estimate of its cost, it did release summaries of key provisions earlier this month, including one that would clarify that acequias are eligible for the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.

The program provides insurance to farmers who are not otherwise eligible for other kinds of federal crop insurance and suffer from disasters like drought, hurricanes, hail or floods.

Acequias are centuries-old irrigation channels relied upon by generations of farmers in New Mexico. Many of them buy crop insurance to protect against harvests damaged by drought, which has intensified across the state in recent years due to climate change.

In 2018, farmers along acequias in Rio Arriba County learned that a policy imposed by former President Donald Trump would make their farms ineligible for the insurance program. The federal Farm Service Agency office in the area also reduced the threshold for harvests that would allow farmers to make an insurance claim, according to U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s office.

In 2021, Luján intervened, convincing incoming President Joe Biden’s Agriculture Secretary to pause the policy and get the farmers paid back for their losses.

“New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers are essential workers who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Luján said in a news release at the time. “This reversal in policy and practice represents a hard-fought victory that gives New Mexicans the benefits they deserve and have paid into.”

In 2023, Luján sponsored the ACEQUIA Act, which would enshrine the pause into law, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) in the House.

The law was never enacted, but Luján, as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was able to get the provision included in the Senate’s framework for the Farm Bill, Luján spokesperson Adan Serna said.

But it’s not in the House version released Thursday, and both chambers are now working to agree on a compromise, Serna said Tuesday.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement May 17 that, while the two bills have a lot in common, she was concerned the House proposal will “split the broad, bipartisan coalition that has always been the foundation of a successful Farm Bill.”

While the House version of the Farm Bill does not include the insurance provision, it does make acequias eligible for funding from the Water Source Protection Program, which provides $30 million annually to help the federal Forest Service and farmers partner to improve watershed and forest health.

Source NM is an independent, nonprofit news organization that shines a light on governments, policies and public officials.