U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico introduced the Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act, which will allow family farmers and ranchers to have flexibility in protecting groundwater sources while also still producing crops.
While drought has not been a concern for Southwest Colorado this year, this act could ensure groundwater sources are still available in future years when the drought may return.
“Colorado’s family farmers and ranchers face a future that’s going to be a lot hotter and a lot drier – and they need us to ensure USDA’s conservation programs live up to their potential,” Bennet said in a news release from Tuesday. He also said that the legislation gives farmers new tools to preserve groundwater by voluntarily reducing their use while continuing to farm.
“The ongoing drought in Kansas is putting a strain on groundwater supply,” Moran said. “This legislation would enable farmers and ranchers to join a voluntary water conservation program to leverage their land and water resources with USDA, providing incentives for reducing groundwater use.”
The entire state of Kansas is in drought or at risk of being in drought, with a large portion of the state being in extreme drought as of Thursday, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“As the West continues to grapple with a historic megadrought and the long-term aridification caused by climate change, we need solutions that will help us sustainably manage our precious and limited groundwater resources,” said Heinrich. “That’s why I'm proud to support this bipartisan bill that will provide farmers and producers with more tools to meet the short-term challenges posed by water scarcity, while protecting the long-term health of our aquifers.”
America’s groundwater provides drinking water for rural communities and irrigation water supply for farms and ranches across the country. These resources are declining, which could have serious impacts on communities, ecosystem health and economies.
This bill creates a new easement program at the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service within the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program, according to the news release. This new easement program will “encourage voluntary, compensated reductions in groundwater consumption on agricultural land and advance local, regional, or state groundwater management goals,” the news release said. Additionally, the act would:
- Allow NRCS to reimburse transaction costs that equal up to 5% of the federal share. Advanced payment is required to cover costs.
- Guarantee flexibility for farmers and ranchers to continue farming and choose how they will limit their water use, as long as they meet the amount they committed to reducing each year.
- Ensure farmers are compensated fairly through payment based on the market value of the water, rather than a per acre payment.
- Ensure that easement funds will not be counted toward adjusted gross income. Producers with an adjusted gross income of over $900,000 are eligible for a waiver to participate in the easements.
“This groundwater easement tool will allow farmers to be compensated for water reductions without having to completely retire acreage, ensuring the viability of agriculture and rural communities into the future,” said James Henderson, La Jara farmer and rancher and vice president, Colorado Farm Bureau.
Several organizations across multiple states support this bill, including Colorado Open Lands, which is what this bill was modeled after since the success of signing the first-ever groundwater easement in 2022 for the Rio Grande Basin, the release stated.