Senators Urge Agriculture Secretary To Help Western States In ’22-Year Mega-Drought’

Published online: Dec 07, 2022 Articles Alexander Bolton, The Hill
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Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is leading a letter signed by 14 other senators urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to help Western states survive what they are calling a “22-year mega-drought” that is threatening farms and ranches across the West.  

“The American West is in crisis. Across the major basins of the American West … farm and ranch families hang in the balance as they grapple with a 22-year mega-drought,” they warned. “The acute shortage of water for Western growers threatens productive farmland across our states, which are both a pillar of our rural economies and drivers of America’s food production.”

The letter is the latest sign of growing economic pressure posed by the changing climate and the competition for federal money to help communities across the country cope with severe weather.

A study by UCLA published in the journal Nature Climate Change earlier this year reported the American West is suffering its most severe drought in 1,200 years.

Two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at their lowest levels on record.  

The senators want the Department of Agriculture to use its authority to help Western farmers and ranchers conserve water, improve their water infrastructure and protect lands plagued by drought.

They say improved water conservation, cover crops that slow erosion and improve soil health, will help farmland store more carbon from the atmosphere, which could help mitigate climate change.  

The letter’s signatories include Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash).  

The senators argue that many existing Department of Agriculture programs “do not translate well to the needs of Western agriculture” and want the department to promote projects to help basins such as Colorado River Basin, the Rio Grande Basin, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Basin and the Columbia River Basin.  

“As you know, American farmers and ranchers manage over 895 million acres of ground in the United States, giving them a vital role in combating climate change risks while continuing to feed America,” the senators wrote.  

They said the $20 billion Congress recently provided for agriculture conservation programs should be allocated “equally across the country to reflect the contribution of every region, including the West.”  

They urged Vilsack to address the understaffing of Agriculture Department field offices and to prioritize hiring more staff with expertise in West agricultural production.