Legislation Creates New USDA Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Easement Program
Washington, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), 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.
“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 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.”
“The ongoing drought in Kansas is putting a strain on groundwater supply, including the Ogallala aquifer,” said 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.”
"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 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.
Specifically, 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;
- Ensure that 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.
“Conservation easements are a trusted permanent tool to protect farm and ranch land to secure our food production and rural economies for future generations. It was through discussions with Colorado irrigators and water managers that the idea emerged to apply this tool to support aquifer recovery. Last fall, Colorado Open Lands piloted a groundwater easement which will forever benefit area farmers and wildlife. This bill allows us to use groundwater conservation easements to incentivize farmers to voluntarily reduce their water use while continuing to farm. We applaud Senator Bennet for working toward solutions that keep working lands in working hands to the benefit of local economies and ecology while recognizing the urgency of our declining groundwater aquifers,” said Sarah Parmar, Conservation Director, Colorado Open Lands.
“As a farmer and rancher in the San Luis Valley, I have seen firsthand the need for flexible and voluntary funding tools for farmers to conserve water while still being able to farm. This groundwater easement tool will allow farmers to be compensated for water reductions without having to completely retire acreage, ensuring the viability of agriculture and rural communities into the future,” said James Henderson, La Jara farmer and rancher and Vice President, Colorado Farm Bureau.
"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 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.”
“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.
“The Ogallala Land & Water Conservancy of New Mexico wholeheartedly supports Senator Bennet and Moran's proposed bill, the Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act of 2023, knowing it holds great promise for our generational farmers who are historically sowing into our community and the nation's breadbasket. This innovative bill respects and honors the voices of our farmers by putting vital choices in their hands regarding the option to place only their groundwater, versus the land, in a conservation easement. This option is exactly what our partnering landowners have desired since voluntarily stepping up to temporarily cease irrigation farming practices due to a rapidly declining aquifer and the threat it poses to the survival of our community and our military installation. The Ogallala Land & Water Conservancy recognizes groundwater conservation easements as our long-term solution to protecting essential groundwater resources. We applaud and appreciate the financial support and flexibility the Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act of 2023 would afford states like New Mexico to acquire vital groundwater conservation easements,” said Dr. Ladona K. Clayton, Executive Director, Ogallala Land & Water Conservancy.
This legislation is supported by: Colorado Open Lands, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Colorado Farm Bureau, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust, Ogallala Land & Water Conservancy of New Mexico, Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, Big Bend Groundwater Management District No. 5 of Kansas, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, National Wild Turkey Federation, National Audubon Society, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Western Landowners Alliance.