WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced the Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act to give family farmers and ranchers the flexibility they need to protect groundwater sources while keeping their agricultural lands in production.
“The ongoing drought in Kansas is putting a strain on groundwater supply, including the Ogallala aquifer,” said Sen. Moran. “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. By conserving our natural resources and limiting the strain on the aquifer, this legislation would help producers conserve the water their farms and ranches depend upon for future generations.”
“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,” said Sen. Bennet. “Building off the work of Coloradans in the San Luis Valley who first used voluntary easements to support groundwater conservation to sustain the local agricultural economy and wildlife habitat, this legislation creates a new tool for farmers to voluntarily reduce their groundwater use and continue to farm.”
“As the West continues to grapple with a historic mega-drought 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 Sen. 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 resources are a primary source of drinking water for rural communities and a vital irrigation water supply for many family farms and ranches across the country. However, these resources are in decline — a trend that could seriously affect communities, water users, ecosystem health and local economies.
The Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act creates a new voluntary groundwater easement program at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) within the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program. This easement program is modeled after the experience of Colorado Open Lands, which signed the first-ever groundwater easement in 2022 for the Rio Grande River Basin.
The Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act would:
- Create a new Groundwater Conservation Easement Program at USDA to encourage voluntary, compensated reductions in groundwater consumption on agricultural land and advance local, regional or state groundwater management goals;
- Allow NRCS to reimburse transaction costs up to 5 percent of the federal share and requires an advance payment for limited resource producers to cover these costs;
- Guarantee long-term management flexibility for a producer to continue farming and choose how they reduce their water use, as long as they conserve the amount they’ve committed to reducing each year;
- Make certain farmers are fairly compensated using a payment based on the market value for the water right instead of a per acre payment; and
- Clarify that easement funds shall not be counted towards a farm’s adjusted gross income and that producers with an adjusted gross income of more than $900,000 are eligible for a waiver from the Secretary to participate in groundwater conservation easements.
“The Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act of 2023 is fully supported by the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3. This policy leadership from Senator Bennet and Senator Moran reinforces our efforts to conserve and extend the Ogallala Aquifer and the success of our Agri-based rural communities that depend on vital groundwater supplies long term. SW Kansas farmers have cut water use by 13% (over 200,000 acre-feet) in recent years while assuring the success of food, fiber and energy production in a way that works for their families and communities. We are grateful for the financial support and options afforded them through the Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act of 2023 to close the gap between Aquifer declines and stable water levels for future generations to enjoy the benefits of agriculture food security and the environment,” said Mark E. Rude, Executive Director, Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3.
“Developed in collaboration with agricultural water users, groundwater easements offer an innovative approach to addressing the West’s increasingly critical groundwater shortages,” said Lesli Allison, Chief Executive Officer of the Western Landowners Alliance. “We appreciate that they are voluntary, flexible, compensated and durable. These are the kinds of tools needed to sustain the working lands and natural resources on which we all depend.”
“From spring-fed streams on the eastern plains to wetlands in the San Luis Valley, groundwater plays a critical role in sustaining vital fish and wildlife habitat important to hunters and anglers in Colorado,” said Alex Funk, Director of Water Resources and Senior Counsel, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act will create a new, flexible tool for farmers and ranchers in Colorado and other states experiencing challenges with sustainably managing aquifer supplies, while protecting important working landscapes and water resources from further development, maintaining food and fiber production, and helping to restore groundwater-dependent ecosystems critical to sustaining fish and wildlife.”
Full text of the bill can be found HERE.