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In furtherance of its efforts to address the considerable challenges related to water scarcity in the West, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the Western Water and Working Lands Framework for Conservation Action (Framework) on February 13, 2023, a blueprint designed to help individuals and entities navigate the complexities of resource conservation and climate change resilience. Developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Framework provides guidance and strategic support for programs that address impacts from drought and climate change, and defines clear goals and strategies that communities can use to respond to threats to agricultural productivity and environmental quality.
NRCS already implements several conservation programs aimed at helping farmers, ranchers, states, tribes, and local entities and organizations participate in voluntary water conservation and management projects, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Rather than another resource conservation program, the Framework is instead a roadmap, providing existing programs with tools to identify priority issue areas and track performance outcomes. In developing the Framework, NRCS identified six major management challenges facing water resource managers and agriculture producers in the seventeen western states:
The Framework also lays out 13 broad strategies for addressing each of these challenges, which the agency indicated would help guide efforts already underway and steer new projects toward the most effective outcome.
Climate change is exacerbating the challenges to water supply and quality in areas already disproportionately affected by volatile water supplies. Cascading impacts include increased risk of erosion and flooding, decreased soil moisture, variable surface water supply, reduced streamflow, increased demand for groundwater, lower water tables, increases in contaminants transported to waterbodies as soils lose the ability to absorb precipitation, and countless other adversities.
The Framework helps identify the most vulnerable agricultural landscapes, as well as those opportunities where the agency can help stakeholders achieve their goals of conservation and sustainable, long-term agricultural productivity. The agency, for example, can help farmers develop practices aimed at improving soil health, nutrient management, and water control to sustain productivity and avoid water quality degradation, or help water management entities and communities complete watershed projects by investing in infrastructure modernization, assisting with the repair or replacement of irrigation canals, or installing water flow meters or other automation devices. Additional assistance can come in the form of helping farmers select less water-intensive or more drought-tolerant crops, reduce salt concentrations that limit productivity, increase efficiency in irrigation water applications, or invest in alternative sources of water supplies such as treated wastewater for reuse.
Existing NRCS programs have included inter-agency collaborations where efforts spearheaded by different agencies are coordinated to enhance outcomes—such as the EQIP-WaterSMART Initiative (WSI), in which infrastructure modernization and water delivery projects funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) are coordinated with, for example, irrigation efficiency projects in the same community funded by NRCS. The North Kern Water Storage District and the Tulare Irrigation District both used EQIP-WSI funds to improve irrigation water use efficiency on irrigated cropland which complemented savings by irrigation districts funded by Reclamation to reduce spills, leaks, and evaporation losses, and conserve water for use during future drought periods.
Additionally, funding through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is being provided to help farmers, ranchers, and forest owners implement new or additional conservation activities on their lands, with a focus on climate mitigation activities. The USDA announced that an additional $19.5 billion of IRA funds will be provided over five years for “climate-smart agriculture” endeavors, such as the establishment of cover crops, nutrient management, prescribed grazing, and wetland restoration. These efforts can contribute to climate change mitigation by increasing carbon storage in soil and plant communities and avoiding, capturing, or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the addition of perennial crops to a rotation on 100 acres of land in Baca County, Colorado, may increase soil carbon inputs from higher levels of plant residue and remove around 25 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
From 2020 to 2022, NRCS provided producers with more than $410 million to address drought in the West. The agency asserts that using guidance provided by the Framework, along with the additional funding provided by the IRA, will help it to build upon these investments and expand support at the state, local, and regional levels.
Producers interested in participating in one of NRCS’s programs should first contact their local NRCS office or visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/news to learn how to apply to any of NRCS’s programs. Applicants can expect a property visit by an NRCS conservation planner and a discussion of goals and resource concerns. Following the site visit and depending on the program applied for, the conservation planner may develop a conservation plan that includes a variety of conservation practices or activities to address the resource concerns and management goals discussed. For information about participating in EQIP, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs to get started.
To learn more about the Framework, visit https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/western-water.
If you have questions about how you can participate in one of NRCS’s programs or for questions about water conservation generally, please contact:
 The Framework focused on the 17 adjoining western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. All 17 states are west of the climatic divide where annual water precipitation is equal to or less than the potential evapotranspiration.
Somach Simmons & Dunn provides the information in its Environmental Law & Policy Alerts and on its website for informational purposes only. This general information is not a substitute for legal advice, and users should consult with legal counsel for specific advice. In addition, using this information or sending electronic mail to Somach Simmons & Dunn or its attorneys does not create an attorney-client relationship with Somach Simmons & Dunn.
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