Merkley, Colleagues Introduce Legislation to Increase Flexibility, Improve Innovative Irrigation Modernization Program

Bipartisan bill to reduce red tape in Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Watershed Improvement Program

Washington D.C. — Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley joined Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) in introducing the Healthy Watersheds, Healthy Communities Act. This bipartisan bill aims to help American agriculture and communities become more resilient to drought and flooding by improving the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program, also known as “PL-566”.

“Climate chaos continues to make the West hotter and dryer, depleting water resources for people, farms, and wildlife. The P.L. 566 program is an effective modernization tool for irrigation systems to conserve water—keeping farms in operation during droughts while also protecting habitat for wildlife,” said Merkley, who revitalized this program when he served as Ranking Member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. “Oregonians’ ingenuity with this program has supported projects that benefit both farmers and wildlife, and this legislation would expand this model and enable rural communities in the West to better mitigate the devastating impacts of drought.”

As the West increasingly faces severe drought and more frequent flooding, farmers, ranchers, and Oregon communities are utilizing the PL-566 program to mitigate the effects of these natural disasters through watershed improvement projects. The critical and growing demand for this program, however, has exposed inadequate funding and burdensome red tape keeping applicants from accessing its full benefits.

A total of 28 watershed program projects are currently underway around Oregon, including projects in seven Central Oregon irrigation districts. The Healthy Watersheds, Healthy Communities Act and the changes this bill seeks are inspired by Central Oregon irrigation districts, as they were the first to utilize the PL-566 program.

Merkley has been a long time leader and advocate for securing federal resources and investments to help support projects relating to water conservation and improving water efficiency. At the end of FY23, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Merkley helped secure $75 million for Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations to fund collaborative projects across Oregon working to conserve water, keeping Oregon’s family farms in business, all while improving the habitats of endangered species. In the FY24 Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies bill, Merkley helped secure $90.4 million for the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program, $10 million of which is set aside for multi-benefit projects like the ones in Oregon.

The Healthy Watersheds, Healthy Communities Act would streamline the planning and administration processes to enable more watershed-wide projects, shift decision-making to local NRCS staff, expand program eligibility, and allow federal funding to count toward state and local match requirements. The bill also prioritizes projects with multiple conservation and public benefits and makes drought resilience an explicit purpose of the program.

“Over the years Senator Merkley has used his seat on the Appropriations Committee to breathe life back into the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program. This has made a significant difference in helping irrigation districts develop multi-benefit modernization projects,” said Julie O’Shea, Executive Director for Farmers Conservation Alliance. “The Healthy Watersheds, Healthy Communities Act is the next step needed to make this program more efficient and make agriculture and the environment more resilient. I applaud Senators Bennet, Merkley, and Fischer for introducing this legislation and I look forward to its final passage.”

This legislation is supported by the Almond Alliance, California Agricultural Irrigation Association, California Farm Bureau, Colorado Farm Bureau, Environmental Defense Fund, Farmers Conservation Alliance, Family Farm Alliance, Irrigation Association, Oregon Water Resources Congress, the St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District, the Freshwater Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Western Growers, and the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

Bill text can be found here.

A bill summary can be found here.