No compensation for voluntary change of farmland status to save water

A U.S. Senator from California is proposing voluntary abandonment of farmland to help conserve water.

Senator Alex Padilla, chair of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife introduced the Voluntary Agricultural Land Repurposing Act. The bill would address water conservation by offering federal money to tribes and states that “voluntarily repurpose certain agricultural lands.”

According to a release from Padilla’s office, California will need to convert up to 1 million acres of farmland to curb drought and address water scarcity. The congressional bill used a California-based program as its template, the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, that was created in 2021 similarly to repurpose agricultural land to reduce reliance on groundwater. The congressional bill would follow a similar grant-funding structure using federal rather than state dollars.

There are three specific actions the congressional bill would take:

  • Modernize the Bureau of Reclamation’s emergency drought authority to authorize funding for states and tribes to run voluntary and multibenefit land repurposing programs. States would match the federal grant at a 50% cost-share. Eligible state-run programs must be basin-scale, reduce consumptive water use, repurpose irrigated agricultural land for at least 10 years, and provide one or more other measurable benefits to the environment or community, including restoring habitat or flood plains connection to streams or rivers, creating dedicated recharge areas, creating parks or recreation areas, facilitating renewable energy projects, and other listed uses.
  • Amend the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program to authorize funding for the multibenefit land repurposing activities described above. This would allow additional water users and partners to engage in multibenefit land repurposing programs while states work to stand up state-run programs.
  • Prioritize programs that provide direct benefits to disadvantaged communities or were developed through a multi-stakeholder planning process.

The bill asks for an allocation of $250 million federal dollars for grant projects and outlines the anticipated benefits of the program including healthier communities, water savings, and conversion of farmland to dryland farming.

What the bill does not address is what irrigated farmers are supposed to do and how they will be compensated for voluntarily giving up productive farmland. Often, when legislators propose “voluntary” conservation programs, they forget a key component: the people.

If the goal is to remove 1 million acres of land from irrigated farming, there should be an understanding that landowners need to be compensated for their loss of income. Whether converting from irrigated to dryland farming or simply giving up farming, both represent a significant change in income status.

The conversion from irrigated to dryland farming provides a few benefits including less input cost and less time in the field overall. Dryland farming also comes with lower yields and more risk as growers rely solely on natural precipitation to water their crops. Given the several years of drought California experienced before 2023, dryland farming is a gamble anywhere in the state.

Other farmers might see value in working in a different profession. That does not mean their land should be forfeit without compensation. Asking farmers to voluntarily donate their land is akin to asking professionals to donate all their 401K. With many generational farms at a pivotal point – either being sold for development or consolidation – most farmland owners will take the opportunity to live out their days in leisure rather than choosing to just walk away from their most valuable asset.

If Senator Padilla wants the voluntary program to work, it needs to take the needs of farmers into greater consideration by outlining how they will be compensated for sacrificing their livelihoods for the greater benefit of water users in the state.

Pam Lewison is the Director of Agriculture Research at the Washington Policy Center and a Pacific Research Institute fellow. She co-owns and operates a family farm in Eastern Washington state.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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