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States Help Farmers, Ranchers Adapt to a Future With Less Water

By Beatrice O'Connor  |  March 15, 2023

Extended drought and competing demands have strained water resources and availability across many states and economic sectors. Agriculture, in particular, is feeling the strain. The sector accounts for about 80% of the nation’s consumptive water use—that is, water removed from available supplies without return to a water resources system—and over 90% in many Western states. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, competing demands have forced reallocation of agricultural water to other uses. This reallocation, in addition to diminishing groundwater and extended drought conditions, has placed a burden on agriculture to adapt in the face of water scarcity.

Over the past few years, several Western states have passed legislation to help agriculture adapt by incentivizing efficient irrigation practices, promoting improved soil health and providing technical assistance to producers.

Digging Into Soil Health

Soil health is a valuable tool for combatting drought conditions in agriculture, prompting various states to enact legislation to promote stable soil, which captures and absorbs more water than degraded soil can. These voluntary state agency programs support the agricultural sector with resources to improve water availability.

In recent years, at least six states have enacted legislation to create soil health programs. The programs promote education on soil productivity and water absorption and offer technical assistance and incentives to agricultural producers to maintain healthy soil.

  • Colorado (HB 1181; 2021): Encourages the widespread adoption of soil health initiatives by the agricultural sector through the evaluation and improvement of current production systems.
  • Minnesota (HB 3420; 2021): Establishes a soil health financial assistance pilot program and directs the creation of a state healthy soil management plan.
  • Nebraska (LB 243; 2019): Creates a task force to develop a comprehensive healthy soils action plan with financial incentives to producers and a consideration of barriers to success.
  • New Mexico (HB 204; 2019): Creates a voluntary healthy soil program that provides education, training, testing and financial assistance to land managers to increase soil water retention and improve yield.
  • Utah (HB 296; 2021): Promotes education on soil health and encourages the use of healthy soil practices through incentives to improve environmental and economic conditions.
  • Washington (SB 6306; 2020): Creates an initiative for soil health research and education, and provides technical assistance in the voluntarily use of soil health stewardship practices.

Improving Irrigation

Innovative irrigation practices are another important way that agriculture can respond to water scarcity.

  • Arizona (SB 1564; 2022) created the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Pilot Program to provide grants for systems that reduce on-farm surface water and groundwater use, eliminate the use of flood irrigation and facilitate data collection on system efficiency.
  • Utah (SB 110; 2022) established a program to encourage the use of irrigation methods adapted to provide optimal water use, and to provide incentives for the modification of irrigation systems.
  • Colorado (HB 1316; 2022) created a system that allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to provide cash incentives to agricultural producers in the South Fork Republican River basin to reduce irrigation and retire lands from production.

Supporting New Approaches

Through the creation of pilot programs and new offices and the focused work of legislative committees, states are creating voluntary, incentive-based opportunities for the agricultural sector to use state resources to improve water efficiency. By providing technical assistance and financial support, Western states are supporting producers as they adopt new conservation practices.

  • Colorado (HB 1242; 2021): Created the Agricultural Drought and Climate Resilience Office to provide voluntary technical assistance and incentive-based programs to adapt to the impacts of drought.
  • Colorado (SB 30; 2022): Expanded the scope of the Water Resources Review Committee to include agricultural issues.
  • Texas (SB 1118; 2021): Created the On-the-Ground Conservation Program, which allows the state to prioritize conservation measures, including improving soil health characteristics and conserving and managing water resources.

Check out the NCSL webinar “Growing Into the Future: Water-Resilient Agriculture” on March 31 to learn more about how states are approaching water scarcity in the agricultural sector. For more on water management and conservation legislation, visit the NCSL Environment and Natural Resources State Bill Tracking Database.

Beatrice O’Connor is a policy associate in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

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