Farmers need more assistance conserving water, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said at a hearing Wednesday where he touted new legislation that would help them do it.

“California is the number-one agricultural state in the country and does more than its part to feed the nation," Padilla said. "But it is getting harder and harder as California and much of the West continues to face extreme weather.”

The senator was promoting the Voluntary Agricultural Land Repurposing Act at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Water and Power Subcommittee. The legislation would provide grants to states and tribes that pilot voluntary agricultural land repurposing programs.

“It is clear that historic long-term mega-droughts and increasing water scarcity throughout the West is our reality and demands more widespread changes to secure our water supply,” Padilla said.

The senator said it's estimated that 750,000 to 1 million acres of farmland in California will need to come out of production due to water scarcity. He stressed the repurposing would be voluntary, and ideally the program would retire marginally productive farmland.

“I believe this is one of many tools that we need to get the Bureau of Reclamation to manage the state drought so that we have enough water to maintain our agricultural economies for years to come,” Padilla said.

The senator said active management of land fallowing can reduce the threats of dust, pests, and weeds.

The Family Farm Alliance submitted testimony ahead of Wednesday’s hearing that focused on over a dozen bills related to western water, energy, and infrastructure. 

The organization noted it has worked with Padilla’s office on the farmland repurposing bill but stressed that taking western agricultural land out of production must be “carefully and thoughtfully evaluated.”

“We appreciate the willingness of Senator Padilla and the subcommittee to work with us on this proposal and will continue to advocate for a more narrowly focused, pilot approach, administered by USDA or funded through a state-run program, and intended to be implemented in a voluntary manner, as a last resort,” Family Farm Alliance said. 

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The alliance took issue with authorizing Bureau of Reclamation funds for farmland repurposing from its WaterSMART program, saying the program is already oversubscribed and not intended for this purpose.

Bureau of Reclamation Administrator Camille Touton also testified before the committee Wednesday to provide an update on Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investments in western water infrastructure and discuss legislation before the committee. 

"Reclamation is concerned with providing funding for voluntary reductions in diversion of water or consumptive use through the SECURE Water Act and would like to work with the bill sponsor and subcommittee to address implementation concerns," Touton's written testimony said.

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