Drought workshops designed to open communication

Oct 19, 2012

With no quick fix in sight on U.S. drought-stricken areas, USDA is trying to gain some insight into what may or may not help in the local, regional and state recovery process through four regional workshops. USDA has held the first two workshops, one in Nebraska and one in Colorado, bringing together state and local partners, the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Thomas Guevara, deputy assistant secretary for regional affairs at the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, joined Colorado Agricultural Commissioner John Salazar to open the second meeting last week in Pueblo, CO, which had a slightly different undertone, with the primary focus on water.

Over 100 participants, including stakeholders, joined Guevara and Salazar to discuss the drought’s effects on water quality and quantity, community and economic impacts, and agriculture and agribusiness.

Participants in the meeting offered thoughts on developing a new framework for cooperation among local, state and federal partners when it comes to drought recovery, and shared ideas about how to establish long-term relationships at all levels in these communities.

With Colorado at the beginning of four major rivers controlled by several states and water rights owners, water woes have taken a toll on not only Colorado agriculture, but also downstream states, local municipalities and even tourism.

In part one of the three-part panel discussion, guests pointed out that lessons from this year’s drought and the 2002 drought indicate the need for more agricultural water storage and cooperative programs that share water resources.

“It’s time to get more storage for this basin. The time has come that agriculture deserves storage,” said Jim Broderick, executive director of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “This year’s bad; but next year could be worse, because municipalities won’t have water to share.”

With the population boom continuing, Colorado’s population is expected to increase from 5.1 million people to nearly 7.2 million by 2030. Finding a balance between all resources is the key, and water is one of the main battle grounds in the state. Water use in Colorado alone is expected to increase from 511,800 acre feet to 630,000 acre feet, according to reports. And with the constant battle between water use, including senior vs. junior water rights, the drought damages have only just begun.

Mark Pifher, manager of Colorado Springs Utilities, discussed the red-tape problems and commented that modifications to a system should not be as complicated. “The burden of proof should not be quiet so high,” Pifher said. When needed, temporary modifications and variances should be more quickly approved, he added.

Pifher also pointed out problems with the communication between ag and urban areas. The drought has created increased salinity in the water, leaving environmental consequences that affect both urban and ag areas on regulatory level. “That’s why urban and ag have to work together,” Pifher said.

Another piece of the discussion centered on ag-to-ag leases, referred to as ag fallowing. While this idea is still in the planning stages, it could offer the opportunity for farmers to lease water rights to each other.

Increased storage plans are in the works for Pueblo Reservoir, according to Jim Broderick, executive director of the South East Water Conservancy District. The plan calls for a 200,000 acre feet increase along the Arkansas. “The key is making sure you have storage along the entire basin,” Broderick said.

Absent from the discussion was the proposed Flaming Gorge pipeline that could annually pump 250,000 acre feet of water from Flaming Gorge and the Green River in southern Wyoming to storage in northern Colorado to ease Front Range water problems. Federal regulators continue to reject the pipeline.

Another project that didn’t make the discussion panel, the Northern Integrated Supply Project, could supply northern Colorado with 40,000 additional acre feet annually. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently evaluating this project.

While Colorado seems to be abundant with water plans and ideas, politics and paperwork continue to be the roadblocks for movement on most of them. But those attending the meeting in Pueblo are hopeful that the discussions shed some light on different perspectives and perhaps brought some new tools to minimize the drought-created water problems.

“There’s no silver bullet to fix the drought,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a blog. “But these workshops will provide an important opportunity for folks to tell us what’s needed. They’ll provide a chance for everyone to learn which tools may be available to help.”

The first meeting, held in Omaha, NE, had approximately 200 in attendance and had a slightly different focus. Opening comments from Vilsack on the farm bill, or lack thereof, set the tone for that meeting. Vilsack said the lack of a new five-year Food, Farm and Jobs Bill has the potential to delay and stifle the federal response for drought recovery.

“USDA is doing all we can, but key programs traditionally made available in times of disaster are in limbo because Congress has allowed our authority to deliver them to expire,” said Vilsack. “As I travel the country, it is clear to me that farmers and ranchers are aware of the gravity of the situation, and the need for Congress to act.”

Prior to the meetings, Vilsack announced the implementation of the National Disaster Recovery Framework. The framework links local, state, tribal and federal governments, the private sector and nongovernmental and community organizations that play vital roles in recovery. It is a scalable, adaptable coordinating structure that helps align key roles and responsibilities in response to disaster recovery. The full text of the framework can be found at http://www.fema.gov/recoveryframework/.

USDA has designated all or parts of 39 states as natural disaster areas this year.

The remaining two meetings were scheduled for Pine Bluff, AR, and in Ohio. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor