Merkley, Crapo Amendment to Boost Innovative Watershed Improvements and Irrigation Modernization Projects Passes Key Senate Vote

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Idaho’s Senator Mike Crapo announce today their bipartisan amendment to significantly boost investments for multi-benefit projects under the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations (WFPO) program, including watershed improvements and irrigation modernization projects, passed the full Senate. Clearing this key hurdle means the amendment will be included in the FY24 Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies funding bill, which is poised to pass the full Senate in the coming days.

The WFPO program, also known as the PL-566 program, has become a vital tool to mitigate the effects of severe drought conditions harming farmers, ranchers, and wildlife, especially in Western states. Originally, $10 million was set-aside in the FY24 Senate Agriculture funding bill for multi-benefit projects under the PL-566 program, but Merkley and Crapo’s amendment successfully doubled the funding to $20 million for these efforts.

“Climate chaos continues to make the West hotter and dryer, depleting water resources for people, farms, and wildlife. The PL-566 program has proven to be an effective modernization tool for irrigation systems to conserve water, keep farms in operation during droughts, and protect 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 amendment will further those efforts here at home and across the West.”

“Multi-benefit projects improve water quality, restore habitat and deliver water more efficiently to agriculture producers,” said Crapo. “This is an important step forward in equitable distribution of these funds to those who need it most.  As we continue to mitigate the effects of drought in Western states, it is imperative that we have reliable water sources for all users.”

Multi-benefit projects in the PL-566 program include watershed improvements and irrigation modernization, which have proven to reduce water loss due to evaporation and seepage, as well as conserve water to keep farmland in production during droughts and keep water in-stream for wildlife and recreation.

A total of 21 watershed program projects are currently underway or completed around Oregon, including projects in all eight Central Oregon irrigation districts, which were the first to utilize the PL-566 program.

Senator Merkley was in Central Oregon last week to celebrate the groundbreaking of three new piping projects with farmers, irrigation districts, Tribes, conservationists, and other key partners in the Deschutes Basin who are critical to turning irrigation modernization plans into a reality.

In total, the FY24 Senate Agriculture bill includes $90.4 million for the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program, $20 million of which is now set aside for multi-benefit projects like the ones in Oregon due to Merkley and Crapo’s successful amendment.

The bipartisan amendment is cosponsored by fellow Western state Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Michael Bennet (D-CO).

This amendment is widely-supported by the Family Farm Alliance, Farmers Conservation Alliance, Trout Unlimited, and the Western Agriculture and Conservation Coalition, which also includes the Almond Alliance of California, California Agricultural Irrigation Association, California Farm Bureau, Environmental Defense Fund, the Freshwater Trust, Irrigation Association, Audubon, Oregon Water Resources Congress, Public Lands Council, The Nature Conservancy, Western Growers, and Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

“The NRCS Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program (PL-566) has a strong track record of helping farmers, ranchers and local water management agencies with efforts to modernize water systems across the West. We thank Senator Merkley, his staff and other sponsors for their leadership and initiative to secure this amendment, which increases the set-aside for multibenefit projects -like the ones completed and underway in Central Oregon- under the already over-subscribed watershed and flood prevention operations program,” said Dan Keppen, Executive Director, Family Farm Alliance.

“Multi-benefit irrigation projects are critical to addressing the challenges that farmers, the environment, and local communities are facing,” said Julie O’Shea, Executive Director of Farmers Conservation Alliance. “Doubling the amount of FY24 funding available in the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program is vital for ensuring multi-benefit projects can move forward with construction in the coming years. I commend Senators Merkley, Crapo, Wyden, Daines, Tester, and Bennet for working together to advocate for the program and supporting irrigation modernization.”  

“The Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program has been an indispensable tool to deliver water projects across Central Oregon that will conserve nearly 20,000 acre-feet of water annually for to benefit water supply, species, and the Deschutes River Basin as a whole,” said Craig Horrell, President of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control. “The funding included for this program will ensure that irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin can continue this vital work and build additional water security for our farms, communities, and the environment.”

“As pressure on our water resources continue to grow, it is essential that we continue to strategically invest federal dollars on projects that maximize benefits to water users, the environment, and our communities,” said April Snell, Executive Director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress. “That is exactly what this funding for the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program will accomplish. We truly appreciate the leadership of Senators Merkley, Wyden, Crapo, Daines, Tester, and Bennet to take this important step which will support innovative projects by our irrigation districts and other agricultural water providers and ensure they can continue to deliver water to nearly 600,000 acres of farmland in Oregon.”

“The Western Agriculture and Conservation Coalition consists of some of the most important agriculture and conservation groups in the West. We strongly believe that sustaining an economically viable and environmentally healthy rural west requires sound stewardship of our beautiful natural resources. For this reason, we support Senators Merkley, Crapo, Daines, Tester, Bennett, and Wyden’s amendment #1352 to the appropriations minibus directing the Natural Resources Conservation Service to fund Watershed and Flood Protection Operations projects that provide multiple benefits,” said Jeffrey Eisenberg, Coalition Director, Western Agriculture and Conservation Coalition.