Wyden, Merkley Introduce Legislation to Improve Water Access for Agriculture and Conservation as West Continues to Face Drought

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., today introduced legislation to help communities in Oregon and across the West experiencing high levels of drought. Their bill will improve water access for agriculture and conservation by funding projects that improve dam safety, create more resilient watersheds and benefit agricultural and urban water users.

“At a time when the nation is suffering increased droughts that are hurting critical habitats and forcing farmers and ranchers to do more with less, Congress must act on investments desperately needed,” Wyden said. “Access to clean water is the foundation of any healthy community. By improving water conservation infrastructure, we can reduce the demand for water, improve biodiversity and help farmers and ranchers better plan and prepare for droughts.”

“Water is among the most critical resources for the health of all of our communities, as well as the vitality of rural economies that rely on agriculture,” said Merkley. “Frustratingly, too many families and farms are without reliable and safe water access. This legislation is an important step to help ensure that farmers, tribes, and disadvantaged communities receive the environmental protections and water access they need and deserve.”

States, Tribes and local communities across the West are working diligently to upgrade crumbling water infrastructure but have lacked the critical resources to make meaningful and long-term improvements. Wyden and Merkley’s legislation would provide $120 million over three years for disadvantaged communities to increase environmental protections, support agriculture and make significant steps to improve the water supply for their communities. 

The legislation would:

  • Create a Bureau of Reclamation fund of $300 million to support water recycling projects, water-use efficiency projects and dam safety projects.
  • Expand the WaterSMART program to increase water supply reliability by funding infrastructure and conservation projects that conserve water, increase water use efficiency and improve the condition of natural water recharge infrastructure.
  • Establish a $3.5 million waterbird and shorebird habitat program to provide incentives to farmers to create temporary habitat for bird migration.
  • Authorize $40 million for the Department of the Interior’s Cooperative Watershed Management Program, for water and conservation projects that support disadvantaged communities and generate environmental benefits, such as benefits to fisheries, wildlife and habitats.
  • Establish a grant program for any Reclamation States, Tribes, nonprofit conservation organizations, irrigation or water districts and regional and local authorities to complete habitat restoration projects that improve watershed health and mitigate climate change.
  • Improve drought planning and preparedness by requiring federal agencies to prepare a plan to sustain the survival of critically important fisheries during eras of drought.
  • Create a $25 million program to fund aquatic ecosystem restoration and protection projects.
  • Authorize $25 million through 2027 for fish passage projects under the Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act to support voluntary fish screen and passage projects in Oregon, Washington, California, Montana and Idaho.

The bill text can be found here.

Trout Unlimited Oregon Director Chrysten Lambert: “Senator Wyden’s bill will make more win-win projects possible in Oregon that benefit our fisheries, support local jobs, and create more resilient watersheds.”

Trout Unlimited Vice-President of Government Affairs Steve Moyer: “Trout Unlimited appreciates Senator Wyden’s leadership in addressing western water security, and this bill promotes projects that invest in reliable water supplies for communities, agriculture, and watersheds.”   

The Freshwater Trust President Joe Whitworth: “As trying as these time are, we have more still ahead. To bring jobs now and rapid resilience to farms, ranches, and local watersheds, we need to coordinate and invest in smart irrigation and restoration efforts on a greater scale. These are the kinds of investments that rural communities across the country can put to good use in building a new kind of prosperity: one that finds a balance of ecosystems and food supply chains that can endure over time and changing conditions.”

Family Farm Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen: “This bill provides important tools to address water and natural resources challenges across the West. We appreciate Senator Wyden’s leadership and look forward to closely working with the Senator to improve specific provisions to ensure the bill’s effectiveness and purpose is achieved in a way that works for all water users.” 

Agency Ranch Part-Owner Kelley Thomas Delpit: “As Upper Klamath Basin ranchers and land stewards, we applaud Senator Wyden’s commitment to preserving agricultural livelihoods, while protecting natural resources and enhancing wildlife habitat. This bill will provide critical long-term investment to support sustainable water management practices throughout the West, benefitting rural communities and aquatic ecosystems alike. The Thomas Family Limited Partnership and Agency Ranch fully support Senator Wyden’s comprehensive water bill.”

Sustainable Northwest Director of Government Affairs Dylan Kruse: “Sustainable Northwest commends Senator Wyden for taking action to ensure a secure water future for Oregon and the Western U.S. Chronic drought, competing demands, and aging infrastructure have created urgent need for investments in efficiency and resiliency to provide enough water for people and wildlife. These comprehensive investments will create jobs in rural communities, improve wildlife habitat, increase recreation opportunities, and ensure safe and plentiful water for consumption and agricultural use in the West.”  

Morrow SWCD District Manager Kevin D. Payne: “The Morrow Soil and Water Conservation District would like to voice its support for the proposed water Stimulus Water Bill from Senator Wyden aimed at increasing water usage efficiencies for benefit of wildlife and drought resilience through practical water management solutions on working lands. These advancements will assist us in implementing restoration projects while meeting the needs of irrigators, recreators and the surrounding environment.”   

Gilliam Soil & Water Conservation District (Condon, Ore.) District Manager Herb Winters: “The co-conveners of the Lower John Day Place-Based planning effort, the Gilliam SWCD and Mid John Day-Bridge Creek Watershed Council commends Senator Wyden for his leadership to advance practical and urgently needed solutions to water management that will maintain working farms and ranches while improving water use efficiency for wildlife habitat and drought resilience. The proposed expansions in program eligibility will allow the Lower John Day Working Group to implement our vision for comprehensive restoration and sustainable water use in Northeast Oregon that balances the needs of irrigators, environmental protection, and recreation for decades to come.”