Farm Bill Expires, Path Forward Unclear

As Congress brokered their last-minute deal to avoid a government shutdown, the 2018 Farm Bill quietly expired. According to a briefing by Zane Kessler, the River District’s Director of Government Relations, this leaves the fate of many federal agriculture and nutrition programs unclear until new legislation is passed.

“Having no farm bill means that smaller initiatives like trade, research and rural development programs may pause or not make additional commitments,” reported Kessler.  For example, NRCS should continue making payments on existing contracts but may not be able to offer new contracts. Some conservation efforts may be on hold. Others like the Working Lands Programs will continue due to their funding being extended by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022

“All signs point to a short-term extension for several Farm Bill-related provisions from the 2018 Farm Bill covering numerous food and nutrition policies and programs,” said Kessler. “Key topics of debate will almost certainly include include (food stamp assistance) and funding levels for climate change and rural energy programs.”

Kessler noted that members of the House Freedom Caucus are still demanding steep cuts to the ag portions of the bill, not just nutrition programs. “The Freedom Caucus’ insistence on cutting farm programs is likely a bad sign for the farm bill, as those demands are nearly certain to resurface,” he said.

Lawmakers have yet to release the draft text of the Farm Bill legislation in both chambers. Leaders in the House and Senate, Rep. G.T. Thompson (R) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) have mentioned their desire to share draft legislation soon.

What happens next? A late farm bill is nothing new.  In fact, no farm bill this millennium has passed on time.  And lawmakers have been predicting a farm bill extension since late spring. Still, with political obstacles at every turn, there are no guarantees. Now that the budged deadline has been pushed back, consideration of the farm bill may be pushed back even further.

Kessler also provided updates on a handful of the River District’s Federal priorities in his quarterly Federal Affairs memo. His full memo is available HERE, and a few highlights are included below:

  • San Juan and Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program Update: On Sept. 20, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted to approve U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert’s Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basins Endangered Fish Recovery Programs Reauthorization Act (HR 4596). Rep. Boebert’s bill authorizes $50,000,000 for the period of fiscal years 2024 through 2031 for the programs. This is a critical step forward for ensuring that the program of statewide importance has continued authorization. Importantly, Rep. Boebert’s bill is less than the 15 years sought by states and program participants but consistent with new House rules regarding reauthorizations.
  • PL-566: Finding ways to make the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) PL-566 watershed program implementation more nimble and one that prioritizes projects that generate multiple benefits (like irrigation modernization projects on the West Slope) is a priority for the River District and, more broadly, for national Agriculture and Conservation organizations for the 2023 farm bill. With this priority in mind, Sen. Bennet (D-CO), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources, and Sens. Fischer (R-NE) and Merkley (D-OR) introduced S. 2636, the Healthy Watersheds, Healthy Communities Act, in late August. The bipartisan Senate bill would streamline the planning and administration processes to enable more watershed-wide projects, shift decision-making to local NRCS staff, expand program eligibility, and allow federal funding to count toward state and local match requirements. The bill also prioritizes projects with multiple conservation and public benefits and makes drought resilience an explicit purpose of the program.
  • Environmental Protection Agency: In early September, the EPA announced it had revised a key rule to comply with the Supreme Court decision from earlier this year, which changed parts of the previous definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) to align with the Supreme Court’s decision. EPA said the amendments announced are limited and only change the parts of the previous rule that are invalid under the court’s decision. Importantly, the new rule removes the significant nexus test and revises the definition of “adjacent” to mean “having a continuous surface connection.” The definition of “significantly affect” has been deleted. Tributaries, adjacent wetlands, and additional waters no longer include the significant nexus test. Adjacent waters have also had “wetlands and streams” removed.In regard to interstate waters, “interstate wetlands” has been removed from the text. The following definitions have not been changed – “impoundments,” “ordinary watermark,” “territorial seas,” “traditional navigable waters,” and “wetlands.” Further, there are no changes to the WOTUS exclusions. EPA also notes that the agency’s amended WOTUS definition does not affect the longstanding activity-based permitting exemptions provided to the agricultural community by the Clean Water Act. A number of agricultural groups have expressed significant disappointment in the latest WOTUS rule. Many note that the new amendments fall short of addressing long-term issues.