Saturday Soapbox: Agriculture infrastructure

The White House is proposing a $2 trillion federal infrastructure plan, but it's unclear whether the aging network of reservoirs, dams, canals, pipes and treatment plants that supply water for local agricultural and domestic needs will get any help.

On March 31, the Biden administration unveiled a much-anticipated $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The White House released a statement promising investment to “rebuild our country’s infrastructure,” acknowledging that “after decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges and water systems are crumbling.”

Combing through the plan, it is not clear whether the plan includes water infrastructure for agriculture. Yet, water infrastructure is the backbone of Western agriculture, and agriculture is the reason for the communities in which we live, work and play.

The Washington State Water Resources Association, the Yakima Basin Joint Board and the Columbia Basin Development League collectively represent over 100 irrigation districts and municipalities who deliver water to 1.2 million acres of irrigated agriculture in Washington state. The food grown on that land feeds the world and provides an economic base for dozens of rural communities and thousands of residents. These communities are increasingly marginalized as the water infrastructure they depend upon — often federally owned — fails them.

The network of reservoirs, dams, canals, pipes and treatment plants delivering agricultural and domestic water is aging and in need of repair or replacement. The same system that delivers vital irrigation water supply to crops also supports surrounding natural ecosystems found in wetlands, streams and on wildlife refuges.

Funding for new water infrastructure should also be a component of the federal infrastructure program. New infrastructure can implement new solutions or enhance efforts to address pressing needs. There is significant opportunity in Washington state to build new storage and invest in water conservation to help water agencies adapt to the uncertainties of climate change.

The need for immediate and long-term investment is significant and of a magnitude only the federal government can provide.

We have compiled a list of water projects requiring over $1.7 billion to complete. These vital projects will provide much-needed economic stimulus while also meeting the needs of water users and their communities for decades. These projects would protect billions of dollars of economic value currently generated and relied upon for Washington, the region, the nation and beyond.

Washington’s agriculture, with thousands of essential workers, has continued to work diligently during COVID-19 producing food to support the nation’s economy and the health of our citizens. The ability to remain employed prevented the economic downturn witnessed in 2020 from being even worse. During the COVID crisis, it has become more apparent that agricultural water deliveries play a critical role in the security and stability of our nation. It is critical that future infrastructure funding include a reasonable allocation for irrigation water projects.

The stakeholders represented through WSWRA, YBJB and CBDL are doing what they can to advance infrastructure construction and improvement projects like those in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan or the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Program. But these projects and many more like them are failing to keep up with need due to inadequate funding. This vital work could be completed more quickly and benefit agriculture, the environment, our rural communities, state and national economies with the aid of a broad-based infrastructure funding program.

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