Senate passes Farm Bill including water quality, funding provisions

The U.S. Senate has passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 on an 86-11 vote. The bipartisan legislation would reauthorize the Farm Bill – as it is commonly referred to – for five years. The measure includes provisions that would extend programs that protect drinking water sources from farm runoff and offer assistance to help rural communities improve their water and wastewater infrastructure.

Among the components of the comprehensive legislation is a provision to reauthorize the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) through 2023. The program offers grant assistance to farmers who partner with nearby water utilities and other local stakeholders on joint projects to protect or improve water quality or meet other stated environmental objectives. The Senate-approved bill would amend the program to clarify that projects to protect sources of drinking water or improve drought resilience are eligible for RCPP assistance. The measure would authorize $200 million per year for the RCPP over the next five years.

Other parts of the bill would extend funding through 2023 for USDA’s water, waste disposal and wastewater facility grant program that offers grants and loans to small water utilities to upgrade their drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. It would also continue USDA’s circuit rider technical assistance program that pays for experts to travel to small utilities to assist with management and technical challenges.

The water sector is congratulating Congress for its work on passing the Farm Bill. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) commended the U.S. Senate, noting the Farm Bill will help address many of the nation’s water quality challenges through a holistic, watershed approach.

“NACWA applauds and thanks the Senate for its hard work, in a bipartisan fashion, to make important advances in conservation and water quality initiatives as part of the 2018 Farm Bill,” said Adam Krantz, NACWA’s chief executive officer. “The conservation and partnership language in both the House and Senate Farm Bills makes critical strides in acknowledging and encouraging work between municipal clean water utilities and agricultural partners to address water quality challenges through holistic watershed approaches that can provide the most effective and cost-efficient water quality improvements.  We look forward to continued work with Congress and other stakeholders to craft a final Farm Bill including these important policies and advancing it to the President’s desk for signature.”

NACWA has engaged with Congress in a bipartisan manner on the Farm Bill to advocate for an expanded role for the public clean water utility sector in conservation programs, as well as for increased recognition of the potential for utility partnerships with farmers and landowners to improve water quality through a holistic, watershed approach.

Many of the key conservation and water quality elements in the Senate bill are also in the House Farm Bill passed earlier this month by a much narrower margin of 213-211. Both bills contain similar extensions of the RCPP and recognition of the importance of protecting drinking water sources, but many House Democrats opposed their chamber’s bill due to new work requirements the bill would impose on food stamp recipients. Those provisions are absent from the Senate bill, meaning they will be the likely focus of discussions when the two chambers begin conference negotiations on the bill in the coming weeks.

According to NACWA, most important to the clean water sector is that both the House and Senate bills contain language recognizing and encouraging partnerships at the watershed level between clean water utilities and farmers to advance the goals of the Clean Water Act and provide benefits to farmers, landowners and the public.  This language affirms Congress’s intention for clean water utilities to be partners on conservation and water quality initiatives, and supports progress being made to address Clean Water Act regulatory obligations through watershed partnerships and innovative approaches.

The House and Senate Farm Bills also contain important reforms to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a program created in the 2014 Farm Bill that numerous utilities have considered or used. These include streamlining the application process, providing an expedited renewal process, expanding in-kind matches, increasing the focus on quantification of conservation outcomes, and robust funding. Both Farm Bills also include provisions to support precision conservation practices, tracking conservation metrics and dedicated funding for source water protection.

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