Challenges facing irrigated agriculture in the western U.S.

Dan Keppen is Executive Director of the Farm Family Alliance, a non-profit association that acts as an advocate for family farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts, and allied industries in the 17 western states.  He has 28 years of experience in water resources engineering and policy matters. At the July meeting of Metropolitan’s Agriculture and Industry Relations Committee, he gave this presentation on the challenges facing western irrigated agriculture.

Dan Keppen began by recalling how the Alliance came about 25 years ago when San Joaquin growers and Arizona producers got together at a social event and realized a need to get the producers on the ground back to DC to talk face to face with members of Congress and the administration.  We’re an Arizona nonprofit corporation; I live in Klamath Falls in Oregon,” he said.  “We’re a lean organization … lean but effective, I think.”

Mr. Keppen said in this presentation, he wouldn’t be getting into the benefits of western irrigated agriculture; rather, this presentation will be on the challenges facing western irrigated agriculture.  However, he noted that a report prepared by an economist from Washington State two years ago that determined it’s basically a $184 billion industry in the western United States.

The Farm Family Alliance represents irrigators in 17 western states; their mission is about protecting and enhancing water supplies for farmers and ranchers.  Their membership includes individual farmers and ranchers, as well as irrigation districts, conservancy districts, and flood control districts.  The 17 western states are the reclamation states that are west of the 100th meridian, that have a strong Bureau of Reclamation presence.  “We work very closely with the Bureau,” said Mr. Keppen.  “We’re 90% on the same page with them.”

Some of the stressors facing irrigated agriculture include drought, urban development, aesthetics and restoration, and environmental demands.  “As society increases priority on environmental values, it’s essentially moving water that used to go to ag away and towards environmental purposes,” he said.

The drought had huge impacts on agriculture, especially in the Central Valley,” he said.  “It was devastating. Two of the last three years, our members on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, the ag service contractors got zero water out of the Central Valley Project.  Last year, they got a 5% allocation.  This year, because of the miraculous weather, we got a full supply.”

Mr. Keppen presented a diagram showing the average CVP deliveries for south-of-Delta agriculture, calling it ‘Death by 2 dozen regulatory cuts.’  “It shows how on the CVP west side, their water supply has steadily diminished due to a variety of court decisions, biological opinions, regulatory decisions, and Clean Water Act implementation, and ultimately it led to a situation where again, two out of the last three years, they got zero allocation,” he said.  “A lot of this so-called reallocation of water from farms and basically keeping it in the Delta and letting it go through the Golden Gate is intended to protect Delta smelt, it’s intended to protect salmon, as both fish species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

The unfortunate thing is we’re moving more and more water towards that purpose, and some of that is your water as well, and the species that it is intended to protect are not recovering,” he continued.  “We know there are other stressors impacting those fish, but unfortunately the focus has been on controlling the water quantity knob in terms of water that’s exported south to Southern California and in terms of the water that’s exported south to San Joaquin Valley for agriculture.”

He then presented a slide showing Delta outflow and exports for 2015 and 2016.  He noted that there was a lot of focus in the media on the drought.  “There’s a component of Mother Nature that drives drought, but from our standpoint, there’s a regulatory component as well,” Mr. Keppen said.  “It’s something that can be controlled; it’s the biological opinions and the litigation that has essentially moved water away from agriculture and instream for the benefit of the [environment].  This diagram shows that in 2015 and 2016, we had vastly different amount of water coming through the system in the Delta, and yet last year, there was an even smaller amount of water than in the previous year that went to south of Delta exports, which strongly suggests there is a regulatory component to the water challenges we face in California.”

Mr. Keppen noted that they have a lot of members in the Colorado River basin, and competition is fierce there.  “One of the things I like about Jeff’s presentation when he talks about Colorado River issues is how he ties what happens in the Bay Delta to what’s happening in the Colorado River basin, because the more constraints that are placed in the Delta on your supplies, it means Met’s going to be looking harder at Colorado River basin, and that’s what I try to tell our ag folks in the seven basin states, is pay attention to what’s going on in California, and advocate for those irrigators who are trying to fight some of those regulatory drought issues, because it has an impact on your water supplies.  It’s all connected.”

A Bureau of Reclamation study a couple years ago that considering population growth and climate change impacts into the future, there’s going to be a significant deficit.  “Available supplies will not meet available demand in the future,” he said.  “They are talking about a million acre-feet of water that will be a shortfall.”

Essentially when they did this modeling, nobody was talking about limiting growth in Denver or diminishing the priority on environmental flows; it’s just kind of assumed that that water will be made up by drying up farmland in the Colorado River basin.  The study projects that irrigated acreage will decrease by 300,000 to 900,000 acres through the next 40 year time period because of the hydrologic reality.

Aesthetics can be another stressor; Mr. Keppen explained how Bend, Oregon, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, is dealing with landowners that have different priorities.  “We have some really progressive districts up there that are taking ditches and open channels and converting them to closed conduit; they are generating low-head hydro with that, creating a new revenue stream so they can do those sorts of projects,” said Mr. Keppen.  “They are doing great things for the fish, but people are moving in.  They are buying these homes on the canal and they like that water feature, and so they are fighting these efforts to conserve water because of the aesthetic values associated with the open channels.  That’s another example of the things we deal with.”

Other sort of hot spots they are dealing with include the Columbia River and the Snake River.   “People want those dams to come out on the lower Snake River to help recover salmon,” he said.  “We have a lot of members that would be impacted by that.  It would impact their ability to move grain on barges up and down the Columbia River as well.”

On the Klamath River where Mr. Keppen lives, he said things really haven’t changed.  “We were really close to turning things around with a historic settlement a couple of years ago, but Congress wasn’t able to deliver, and right now we’re back to a situation where the tribes have a senior water right; they’ve called on it, it’s shutdown a lot of the ranching in the upper part of the basin. I’m hopeful that at some point, we can get back and settle that, especially with an Interior Secretary that has a great track record of working with the tribes in Montana.”

Mr. Keppen noted that the Platte River has endangered species act issues, and the Rio Grande has drought issues as well.  “All these things are things that we try to deal with in a constructive way,” he said.

The Farm Family Alliance put together a document back in January for the Trump Administration that identified the issues facing western irrigated agriculture, and then provided details for all the agencies on the things that could be done administratively and with support of Congress.  “This road map isn’t really a public document but I put it out there because a lot of our work this year is springboarding off the things that are in this with the various agencies, and even with our Congressional testimony.”

Mr. Keppen said one of the issues they have in agriculture is trying to tell their story, something they have a tough time with.  “Urban media outlets in particular are pretty hard on agriculture, especially the guys in the San Joaquin Valley,” he said.  “I think there’s a general perception out there that agriculture is using all this water – 80% of the water in the west consumed by agriculture is a number you hear quite often, and if ag would just tighten things up a little bit, it would free up water for other sectors.”

He presented a diagram, noting that the green bars show how much water is being used for food and finer production, and the blue bars show how much water is being consumed by the food in the areas where the food is going.  “You can see where the demand is,” he said.  “I have a board member that says the Los Angeles Times is always ripping us for how much water we use; I like to say the Los Angeles Times is eating our water.  I think this graph shows that.

More flexibility is needed, Mr. Keppen said.  “In our view and in my Board’s view, a big problem that drives a lot of this in the west is just the way that the endangered species act is implemented.  We all know it was well intended law, but I’m not sure that the authors of the endangered species act ever envisioned that it would be used as tool just to stop things outright.  And so we got to find new ways to implement that and some other federal laws.  The litigation is tough to deal with; it creates a lot of uncertainty.  Federal agencies need to have more flexibility to implement these laws, not more restrictions because of litigation.

We have to find a way to somehow reign in the environmental litigation where lawsuits are constantly filed because deadlines have been missed to designate critical habitat or sort of bureaucratic milestones,” he said.  “If the government agencies screw up, they can get sued, and then the law allows them to work out a settlement with the environmental plaintiffs, and these guys end up getting their attorney fees paid for lots of hours and those dollars come out of the budgets of things that could be used to actually improve conditions on the ground.”

Mr. Keppen noted that Congress is working on it, with several bills heard in the house in July, and the Western Governor’s Association just wrapped up year two of an initiative intended to improve ways to conserve species and constructively modernize the Endangered Species Act, which hasn’t been substantively changed in 40 years. The WGA had numerous workshops with multiple stakeholders present, including farmers, oil and gas interests, and environmentalists, and they recently came out with some recommendations that list things that can be done in Congress and things that can be done administratively to modernize the ESA.

Some people out there don’t want to touch the ESA, it’s like some holy document, and politically it’s a tough one,” said Mr. Keppen.  “So I’m personally encouraged by this and what we’re hoping is that on the Senate side, Senator Brasso , hopefully with a democratic counterpart, will introduce some sort of a bill intended to hit the low hanging fruit and do some obvious fixes to the ESA like more state collaboration … I think the whole idea is to move things away from litigation and confrontation and more towards coordination and collaboration, so I’m personally encouraged by that.  We’ll see what happens.  And on the House side, there is specific legislation that is moving as well to focus on the litigation aspects.”

We have to find ways to make the fisheries agencies accountable with how they manage water, just as farmers are held accountable for how efficient they use water,” he said.  “When you have two fish species that are being targeted with water in the Bay Delta and those numbers could continue to decline, so there has to be some accountability there, and that’s something we advocate for.”

Aging water infrastructure is another issue.  “The Bureau of Reclamation facilities, a lot of them are 50 to 60 years old, and we just don’t have the funding mechanisms like we used to especially with the Bureau, so we have to find some creative ways to finance construction of these things by doing creative partnerships,” he said.

Farmers and ranchers will continue to conserve water, but we’re not going to conserve our way to victory,” he said.  “There has to be a mix of demand reduction and conservation; there has to be supply enhancement included in that as well.  We partnered with National Young Farmers Coalition a couple years ago and put together a report that focuses on the sorts of good templates for success in the conservation world. It’s available online.

Mr. Keppen said that the Obama Clean Water Rule really posed a lot of uncertainty and jurisdictional reach as far as how it would impact agriculture.   “We actually worked pretty constructively with the Obama EPA and the Corps and we got a letter from them two years ago that dealt with the issues most concerning to us.  We just wanted to make sure that guys that are maintaining irrigation district ditches and canals can still go in there and do it without risk of being sued, and we basically got a commitment from the Obama folks that this would occur, regardless of what happened with the court decisions.  We’re going to continue to advance that right now with the Trump Administration who is going to basically roll back to the old Waters of the US rule and then write a new rule and we’re in the process of putting together our suggestions for what that rule should look like.”

The Farm Family Alliance advocates for continuing water rights and the prior appropriations doctrine in the west.  “We have a white paper that you can download on our website that talks about this,” he said.  “There was a lot of talk in California two years ago about maybe moving to an Australian model and people were talking about abandoning the prior rights, prior appropriation doctrine.  That caused our members to have a lot of heartburn.  So we put together a white paper on that.  There’s actually a bill that passed the house recently called the Water Rights Protection Act that deals with federal agencies conditioning grazing permits from non water related uses to water related uses, and it would prevent that from happening.”

Mr. Keppen said that it’s important to understand how important food production is in this country.  “A lot of times, as with the Bureau’s assessment of the Colorado River future, ag is assumed to be the reservoir that’s going to by default meet the needs of other sectors, and the economic benefits associated with ag are just glossed over,” he said.  “This chart shows that since 1930, the percentage of your annual disposable income that goes to purchasing food.  It used to be up around 25% prior to World War II.  I saw a stat today, it’s down to close to 6%.  6% of your disposal income goes to food in this country, which allows you to spend money on vacations and send your kids to college.  It has a huge impact on the economy and the consumer’s ability to spend, and our affordable food is a big part of that.  So we need to constantly bring that up and make sure that issue is recognized by decision makers.

He then presented a chart showing the future food gap, noting that it’s something he frequently goes to bed thinking about.  “It’s scary,” he said.  “It basically shows what we need to do meet the future food demand on this planet by the year 2050.  Basically we need to increase our productivity by 1.75% every year for the next 30 years.  If we don’t, we’re going to have this gap, which equates to famine.  And that’s probably the most important thing that our planet faces. We have to be finding ways to keep farmers in business and keep agricultural land in production, not taking it out of production.”

So we’re constantly out there trying to advocate for that,” he continued.  “We’d like to see the Bureau of Reclamation assume in their modeling that populations aren’t going to remain constant when in fact acreage might increase for ag, and what do you have to do to make that happen.  Nobody seems to talk about that because ag is seen as the default reservoir to meet the demands of other sectors, and it’s not just urban growth, I would say the environmental demands are even more pressing.”

Mr. Keppen said there are good partnerships happening.  “We are working very constructively with conservation groups.  My boss says that with the environmental community, you just can’t paint them with one broad brush; there are camps, there are the hopefuls and the hatefuls, he calls them, and we work with the hopefuls, which is the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited, and folks that want to get stuff done on the ground because they know there are better opportunities to do habitat improvements on private land with farmers and ranchers and business then there is dealing with the developers who are putting up condos for a ski area, which is what is happening in parts of Colorado.”

And with that, Mr. Keppen said he appreciated the opportunity to share their message, concluding his presentation.


Committee Chair Larry Dick asked, “You had indicated that the environmental management folks need to have accountability, and I agree with you.  I think accountability makes sense for each dimension of our water community.  What do you see as being the best way to provide that accountability?”

One is that the people who are impacted by biological opinions should be at the table helping to craft those biological opinions, or at least have their scientists at the table,” answered Mr. Keppen. “The water shutoff that happened in Klamath, we had two fisheries agencies, the NMFS which has jurisdiction over salmon, and then Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over suckers, and both agencies wrote biological opinions that basically took more water than the system even provided and took it completely away from the farmers.  Our irrigators up there repeatedly asked to have their biologists at the table, and this guy was an award-winning recognized biologist named Dave Vogel … we were denied, the biological opinions were written in a vacuum, and ultimately the National Academy of Sciences came back the next year and did a peer review of the biological opinions, and found that the science wasn’t justified to back up taking water away from farmers.  So that’s one example.”

The other is how come you never see the names of the guys who write these biological opinions on the biological opinion?” he continued. “They are shielded.  So I think just basically a little more accountability, and the other idea I’ve heard talked about is biologists should perhaps be subjected to the same sort of professional licensing requirements that engineers are.”

Director Russell Lefevre said, “The food gap slide is pretty disconcerting, and it goes along with something we heard earlier where a lot of acreage was going out of agriculture; presumably that’s not everything, but it’s got to be part of it, so what is happening? Is anybody in a position to do anything, worrying about the food gap?”

My goal before I pass on would be for the federal government to adopt a policy that says that the production of safe domestic food is the most important thing in our country, and all other policies should tier off that,” said Mr. Keppen.  “But its tough right now, and the thing that makes this even more discouraging and alarming is right now, less than 2% of the population of America is in farming.  I believe the fastest growing demographic within farming is 60 and over.  Only 8% of farmers right now are 35 years or younger, and so you have this huge food demand gap we’re going to have to deal with over the next couple decades at a time when we don’t have a lot of people in the business and we’re having a hard time keeping them there.”

It’s a huge, huge issue, and I think it’s the most important thing facing us right now, and so rather than try to bully or buy farmers out which was happening in Colorado for awhile for their water, we need to be finding ways to incentivize and keep them in the business, and there are some farm bill programs that have been proposed that are intended to make it easier,” he continued.  “One of the big challenges for farmers if you don’t have a family and a farm is the capital to get involved.  It’s very expensive and the financing is really challenging, so the new farm bill is going to tackle some of that, provide some new programs to help beginning farmers, but from my personal standpoint, changing some of these policies and making them a little more incentive driven and cooperative, rather than using the regulatory hammer would help.”

One of the directors asks what the percentage is of corporate farms.

My experience is that with most farms, of course you set up a corporation,” said Mr. Keppen.  “It’s for tax purposes and it’s for liability protection, and that sort of thing.  Every small farm pretty much has a corporation like that, but they are still family.  It’s just a small family but they’ve got a corporate structure.  The critics of irrigated agriculture, they know Americans love family farmers and ranchers and they poll really well, so they know they are going to get in trouble if they go after farmers and ranchers as families, that’s why they use these terms like corporate farms or subsidized agribusiness, that’s how our environmental opponents characterize farmers and ranchers, so it gets away from the personal aspect of what a farmer really is.”

Daily emailsSign up for daily email service and you’ll never miss a post!

Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook’s aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
%d bloggers like this: