WASHINGTON—U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, issued the following statement after the Senate adopted his amendment to the farm bill that will help protect Alabama farmers against drought and promote increased production.
“Expanding irrigation in Alabama will help protect against drought and can also dramatically increase agricultural production in the state, which is why I supported the creation of the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) several years ago. However, USDA currently limits AWEP to farms that have been irrigated previously—a requirement that prevents most Alabama farmers from being eligible for this useful program. In Alabama, less than 5% of farm acres are irrigated. My amendment, which was accepted by unanimous agreement in the Senate yesterday, eliminates this unwarranted restriction and will help ensure that more Alabama farmers are eligible for USDA irrigation assistance programs.”
The Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), which receives approximately $60 million annually, is a “voluntary conservation initiative that provides financial and technical assistance for agricultural producers to implement agricultural water enhancement activities on agricultural land to conserve surface and ground water and improve water quality” (USDA). AWEP assists farmers with the use of upland water storage ponds, irrigation system improvements, water quality improvement, and other similar efforts.
However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently requires AWEP participants to “certify” that their farm acres have a prior history of irrigation. Farmers are often required to show past irrigation records, irrigation water management plan documentation, or a map and/or aerial photograph showing farm acres with irrigation history. This “prior history” requirement prevents many worthwhile agricultural water enhancement projects from being eligible for AWEP, particularly in states where irrigation has not been significantly used. According to data in the 2007 USDA Agriculture Census (Table 10), many farm acres do not have a history of agricultural irrigation. According to ALFA here, “only about 5% of Alabama’s farms have irrigated cropland,” and this prior history requirement “has prevented the program from being more widely utilized” in Alabama.
This week, the Senate began consideration of the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 (S. 954), also known as the Farm Bill. This bill consolidates AWEP and other similar programs into a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Senator Sessions filed an amendment (No. 945) to clarify that, when providing agricultural water enhancement assistance under the Farm Bill’s new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, USDA cannot limit eligibility on the basis of “prior irrigation history.” This important provision corrects the practice at the USDA that has prevented many Alabama farmers from being eligible for federal irrigation assistance programs. As modified and agreed to by the Senate, Sessions’ provision applies in States where irrigation has not been used significantly for agricultural purposes.