U.S. must protect West’s farmlands
By Patrick O’Toole
Posted: 05/27/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT
The Obama administration recently launched a campaign focusing on a rural renaissance. This initiative is important to Westerners, both rural and urban.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged that the government will try new approaches to rejuvenate rural American communities. However, many federal policies concerning natural resources are undermining the economic foundations of rural communities in the arid West by making farming and ranching increasingly difficult.
My family operates a cattle and sheep ranch along the Wyoming- Colorado border. We pay particular attention to Vilsack’s pledge to explore new approaches to keep young people in rural communities. Rural incomes are falling farther and farther behind those of urban and suburban Americans. Expanding residential developments are eroding our agricultural base and the open spaces so valued by everyone. According to the American Farmland Trust, America loses 2 acres of farmland every minute. From 1992 to 1997, more than 6 million acres of agricultural land — an area the size of Maryland — were converted to development.
Another growing concern for farmers and ranchers is the increased difficulty in accessing agricultural credit. There simply are not enough available resources to finance our business activities — a problem we share with other small and family-owned businesses.
The demographic trends should serve as a wake-up call to the nation. A recent United Nations study cited by Vilsack finds that global food production must increase by 70 percent in the next four decades to meet escalating demand. American family farmers and ranchers for generations have grown food and fiber for the world. We will have to muster even more innovation to meet this critical challenge. That innovation must be encouraged rather than stifled by new regulations and the uncertainty they bring.
Unfortunately, many federal water resources policies and regulatory practices are undermining the economic foundations of rural Western communities by making farming and ranching increasingly difficult. Some new policies under consideration by the administration would only make the situation worse. Many Western farmers and ranchers are convinced the federal government no longer values them or their livelihoods.
In the rural West, water is critically important to farmers and ranchers and their communities. In recent decades, we have seen once-reliable water supplies for farmers steadily being diverted to meet new needs. Rural communities are threatened by increased demand caused by population growth, diminishing snowpack, increasing water consumption for domestic energy, and emerging environmental demands.
We hope the Obama administration adopts an overriding national goal of self-sufficiency in food production. Food security is homeland security. Policy decisions should be consistent with that goal. We must find ways to keep farmers and ranchers doing what they do best, and to encourage young farmers to follow in their footsteps.
At a minimum, administration policies on various water-related issues (the Clean Water Act, aging water infrastructure, climate change, regulatory reform, meeting water demands of a growing population, land-use, etc.), should look to the goals of preserving our domestic agricultural production capacity and the vitality of rural Western communities.
Europeans aggressively protect their farms and food-production capability because they still remember the hungry years of World War II, when they relied on other nations — especially America — for food. It is past time for the U.S. to adopt an overriding national goal of self-sufficiency in food production. It’s hard to imagine a more important step to safeguard the American public.
Patrick O’Toole is president of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators in the Western States. He and his family raise cattle and sheep near Savery, Wyo.
Contra Costa Times editorial: Decision paves way for fairer water permits in California
Posted: 05/26/2010 12:01:00 AM PDT
TWO YEARS AGO, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger invalidated permits on California dams and pumps, ruling that they were too lenient and posed a threat to endangered salmon and the Delta environment. We believe that he was correct in his assessment of those permits, which allowed too much water to be drained from a sensitive estuary.
However, the conditions that Wanger imposed on pumping went too far in the other direction. That’s a conclusion Wanger himself reached last week. Again, we agree.
He said that the federal government did not adequately analyze the “draconian” impact that the new restrictions would have on the state’s water supply and those who depended on it. Wanger added that regulators did not provide scientific justification for such stringent limits on Delta pumping.
Specifically, Wanger ruled that “the exact restrictions imposed, which are inflicting material harm to the human environment, are not supported by the record.”
That was also the conclusion of urban and agricultural beneficiaries of the state and federal water projects in the San Joaquin Valley who sued to overturn the more stringent permits.
The federal government and environmental groups continued to argue in favor of the tighter pumping restrictions. However, the state of California sided with the water users, a position Wanger called “highly significant.”
Last week’s ruling involves only the permit designed to protect salmon, steelhead and sturgeon. However, the issues in a second case concerning Delta smelt are similar.
Just what the revised regulations will be on pumping water from the Delta to users has not been determined, though the judge was considering interim changes to the salmon permit late Tuesday. He is likely to insist on a more balanced assessment of the impacts on humans as well as the environment.
The door is now open for greater flexibility in meeting agricultural, urban and environmental needs without inflicting undue harm to any of those areas.
Until the 2009-10 rainy season, California had been suffering a water shortage that would have placed a burden on water users even without the strict pumping permits.
The combination of three dry years and a massive cutback in water deliveries has cost Central Valley farmers considerable economic hardship and the loss of thousands of jobs at a time of high unemployment in the region.
We trust that when new permits are written, they will be based on better science and a greater sensitivity toward their impact on water users and will not be an overreaction to a degraded Delta environment.
A more balanced permit that is satisfactory to all parties should be easier to achieve now that rainfall and the Sierra snowpack are above average. But we should not let this small reprieve divert us from serious action. Instead, we should use it to properly plan and begin implementing solutions that can satisfy our state’s essential water needs.
Of course, increased water storage in reservoirs and aquifers could alleviate water shortages in all but severe droughts and provide sufficient water for the environment and users.