Federal Water Tap, February 19: Agriculture Census Reveals Farming Shifts

The Rundown

  • USDA farm census finds decline in irrigated acreage and increase in cover crops.
  • Interior Department brokers deal in Klamath River basin between farmers and tribes.
  • GAO assesses flood-control infrastructure in a changing climate, and says the Defense Department should be more transparent about cleanup costs for a fuel spill on O’ahu.
  • EPA, meanwhile, tells the DOD to continue monitoring drinking water after the O’ahu fuel spill.
  • EPA expands technical assistance for low-income communities with sewage challenges.
  • USGS reports that groundwater levels in the Ogallala aquifer are moving in different directions.

And lastly, U.S. and Canadian diplomats discuss the Columbia River Treaty.

“When it comes to our bilateral issues, we have a shared responsibility to manage the Columbia River, and we’ve been working on an agreement to modernize the work that we do together, and hope very much that we can bring that to conclusion soon.” – Antony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state, speaking before a meeting with Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister. The two countries have spent more than five years in talks to modernize the Columbia River Treaty by including environmental provisions in a framework that focuses on hydropower and flood control. The river begins in Canada before crossing into the U.S. and forming the border of Oregon and Washington. Unless a new agreement is reached, treaty provisions for reservoir operations will change in September this year.

By the Numbers

150: Additional low-income communities that the EPA will help to access federal funding to improve their sewage systems. After a test-run in 11 communities, the agency is opening its services to more areas that need guidance in developing capital investment plans and applying for funds.

News Briefs

Ag Census
Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys the state of American agriculture. The latest census, published last week with data from 2022, shows that structural changes in the farming industry continue.

Irrigated acreage declined overall – down 5 percent, to 54.9 million acres. Mostly this is due to decreases in the western states, where concerns about water availability and the conversion of cropland into subdivisions are resulting in less irrigated cropland.

California was the notable exception in this period. The 2017 census took place following a severe drought in the state, when irrigation supplies had been more constrained.

Supplemental water, however, continues its upward trend in the eastern states. Corn states like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota all increased irrigated acreage. This rise goes hand-in-hand with worries about groundwater depletion.

Other census highlights:

  • Cover crops expanded by 17 percent, to nearly 18 million acres
  • No-till, another conservation practice, grew more slowly, up 1 percent, to 105 million acres
  • Consolidation continues: average farm size grew by 5 percent and the number of farms shrank

Klamath River Basin Deal
An influential farm group and three tribal nations in the Klamath River basin signed an agreement to cooperate on ecosystem restoration and irrigation infrastructure, E&E News reports.

The deal, brokered by the Interior Department, which operates an irrigation project in the basin, brings together two sides that have been at odds over water supply.

“We have for the first time in a decade gotten everyone talking to each other again,” an Interior official said at a news conference. “The fact that we have the water users and these three really important tribes at the table looking at this together is really, really significant and I think historic.”

Studies and Reports

Before the Levee Breaks
The Government Accountability Office assessed federally funded flood-control infrastructure, providing the Army Corps of Engineers 14 recommendations for managing these levees, dams, sea walls, and hurricane barriers amid a changing climate.

Those options span the administrative (staff with clear authority on climate resilience) to the procedural (climate risk assessments of proposed projects/updated building standards) to the engineering (retrofit existing structures). The assessment notes the benefits and drawbacks of each recommendation.

Corps leadership agreed to evaluate the options.

Fuel Spill at O’ahu Military Base
The Defense Department should be more transparent about the projected costs of closing a damaged fuel depot on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, according to a GAO report on the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility.

The DOD plans to close the facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam by the end of 2027. The audit says that the department should tell Congress about expected remediation costs beyond the $1 billion that federal lawmakers have already appropriated.

Some 21,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from the facility in 2021, contaminating groundwater in at least one drinking water supply well outside of Honolulu. The spill was one of several such fuel leaks in the last decade at the facility.

Ogallala Aquifer Assessment
The U.S. Geological Survey published a report on water-level changes in the nation’s largest aquifer, an assessment showing the aquifer moving in two directions.

Groundwater levels declined several feet in the last two years in the Texas Panhandle and southwest Kansas. In eastern Nebraska, by contrast, groundwater levels rose a couple feet due to wetter weather.

The report covers two periods: the long-term changes between 1950 and 2019, and short-term changes between 2017 and 2019.

In context: Kansas Farmers Cut Ogallala Water Use – And Still Make Money

On the Radar

O’ahu Drinking Water Monitoring
An EPA regional office told the Navy in a letter that it should continue monitoring drinking water on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for contaminants after the current plan expires in the next few weeks.

The plan was put in place after the fuel spill from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility. The letter says that total petroleum hydrocarbons in drinking water are not elevated. But the agency has received customer complaints.

PFHxS: How Toxic Is It?
An EPA contractor will host a three-day peer review of the agency’s draft toxicological assessment of PFHxS, a compound in the PFAS family.

The review will happen February 26, 27, and March 1. Register here.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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