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Farmers, Other Westerners Testify on Impacts of Catastrophic Drought

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 19, 2021 -

Today, House Committee on Natural Resources Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee Ranking Member Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.) led a forum on the catastrophic drought situation across the American West. 

"It says a lot that we have a diverse collection of western members and witnesses who can speak firsthand about the drought’s impacts," Westerman said during the forum. "This event will serve as the first step on what we can do to work together to bring solutions to the table. Our American way of life has been directly and positively related to the vision laid out by our western water engineering forefathers generations ago. They designed and built projects to help end the cycle of devastating floods followed by crippling drought. Those projects that captured water in wet times to use later for dry times worked for decades to create prosperity and food abundance enjoyed nationwide, and the emissions-free hydropower these projects generate helped us win World War II and created vibrant economies."

The panel of Republican members - from both on and off the Natural Resources Committee - heard from 14 witnesses during the forum, including:

Ross Copeland, county director, Texas Farm Bureau

The Honorable Travis Day, county commissioner, Sierra County, New Mexico

Todd Neves, fourth generation farmer, Westlands Water District, California

Jason Phillips, CEO, Friant Water Authority, California

"There have been many factors over the years making it increasingly difficult to continue farming and ranching; however, severe drought is one of the largest issues we face," Copeland said. "Typically, we plant winter wheat in September and October and put cattle on these fields around January or March. This provides a more affordable feed source for our cattle and gives our pastureland time to rest. Due to severe drought conditions, we were unable to continue this routine in 2020 and 2021. The worsening drought made it impossible for us to grow a wheat crop, causing major disruption on our operation. Due to this, we have been forced to buy feed for cattle and even sell some of our herd to make ends meet."

"I am a true believer that the American farmer and rancher are the greatest stewards of our natural resources; however, they are not immune to drought impacts," Day said. "In Sierra County, our ranchers are forced to haul water across the ranch because groundwater wells are going dry. I have had personal conversations with ranchers who fear having to sell their entire herd this year if no moisture is received. They simply cannot afford to buy hay or grain. Our farmers in the southern portion of the county are only being allocated a total of three inches of irrigation water for the year, an amount that does not equate to a full single irrigation. The continuance of funding for federal programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Livestock Forage Program to provide assistance to our producers is crucial to ensure they have the means to feed the American population."

"On our farm in Westlands, we are dependent on groundwater wells today, because the Bureau of Reclamation has said it cannot currently make any surface water available to us," Neves said. "This has caused me to make tough decisions, like fallowing 35 percent of our farm. When fallowing 35 percent of your land, what follows next is laying off employees. I have the daunting task of deciding whom to let go. Will it be a longtime employee who has been with me through thick and thin, whose children I saw grow up? Or is it the new employee who is recently married, with their first child on the way? These decisions are gutwrenching, and I know that every other farmer in Westlands is having to make these same decisions."

"For more than 30 years, most decisions made, and actions taken in Washington, DC and Sacramento, CA have made the impacts of drought even worse, and have turned a water storage and delivery system, which was once the envy of the world, into a confusing mess of regulations, laws, and contradictions," Phillips said. "Our forefathers had the wisdom and vision to design and construct a water delivery system that could withstand five consecutive years of drought. Now, after one or two years, the system is in a tailspin and unable to live up to its needs. At some point, if common sense doesn’t take over, the past will become the permanent future and implementing sensible solutions will be too late for too many people, cities and farms in the Valley." 



Drought conditions across the American West will continue worsening over the summer months. This issue impacts communities across the country, resulting in:

  • Less Water: a reduction in snowpack and rain events means inadequate water
  • supplies for agriculture, fish, wildlife and urban needs.
  • Less Emissions-Free Electricity: reduced water means less hydropower generation.
  • Less Food: farmers reduce planting; producers sell cattle.
  • Fewer Jobs: beyond the impacts to agriculture, reductions in water supply impact manufacturing facilities.
  • Increased Fires: prolonged dry conditions increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires, as dry brush and forests act as tinderboxes for the smallest spark.

Republicans have offered numerous solutions to these systemic issues. Active forest and rangeland management is one way to provide more water, given the direct relationship between land management and watershed health, water quantity and quality. In addition, many irrigation districts have focused on conserving existing water supplies by concrete-lining or piping canals to avoid water loss through seepage or evaporation. Some communities actively recycle their wastewater and use such wastewater for groundwater recharge or for immediate consumptive use.


Ultimately, most experts agree that it takes a host of measures to help drought-proof a community and that water conservation cannot solve a water crisis in the long-term. Many have pointed out that increased water storage can play a significant long-term role in providing water for multi-parties. 


Watch the full forum here.

Contact: Committee Press Office 202-225-2761

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