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  • Kari Hamershlag is a senior food policy analyst at Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy organization.

Viewpoints: Farm bill would be a disaster for conservation, California

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 15A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2013 - 7:07 am

The farm bills now before Congress will affect all Californians and every aspect of the American food and farming system. Their priorities are all wrong, especially when it comes to protecting natural resources.

Both the Senate and the House are proposing to slash vital conservation programs that help farmers better protect the air, water, soil and wildlife habitat on their farms. These reckless cuts enable Congress to increase spending on misguided crop insurance subsidies that encourage environmentally destructive production practices and primarily benefit crop insurance companies and the largest, most profitable commodity farmers in the Midwest. This is bad policy for California and the nation.

In these austere times, some might say we must cut everywhere. And yet the proposed cuts are unnecessary and follow billions in conservation cuts over the past five years. Putting reasonable limits on crop insurance premium subsidies and reducing crop insurance company profits are better ways to save taxpayer money.

Water pollution from agriculture is on the rise. More farm bill resources should be used to fix the problem rather than make it worse, especially when three out of five eligible farmers who want to be better stewards of the land are turned away due to lack of funds.

In California, fertilizer, pesticides and sediment that run off poorly-managed farm fields are damaging California's water resources. More than 9,000 miles of the state's rivers and streams and 513,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs fail to meet minimum federal safety standards for swimming, aquatic life and drinking water because of pollution from irrigated agriculture.

Around the country, increasing levels of nitrates in ground and surface water are threatening aquatic life and public health and costing public water agencies and ratepayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

Nitrate contamination in drinking water has become a particularly acute problem in California, as decades of fertilizers and animal manure have made their way into the state's groundwater. A recent study by the University of California, Davis, found that 250,000 people in the Tulare Lake basin and Salinas Valley are at risk of drinking nitrate-contaminated water.

With millions of consumers demanding fewer pesticides on their food and thousands of farmers in California under increasing regulatory pressure to protect water quality by reducing and better managing their fertilizer and pesticide use, now is the time for Congress to strengthen, not cut, proven conservation programs.

But it's not enough to maintain current funding levels. Conservation resources must be targeted more effectively to reach more farmers and reduce water pollution. Our organization, the Environmental Working Group, has found that just 2 percent of funding over the past four years in California's most important farm bill conservation program – the Environmental Quality Incentive Program , or EQIP – is going directly to farmers to develop and implement nutrient and pest management plans that help them reduce the use of fertilizer and pesticides on their farms.

The lion's share of the state's EQIP funding, nearly 80 percent, pays for costly structural management practices such as cleaner engines, irrigation equipment, animal fencing and manure storage, instead of cheaper, more effective land management practices like nutrient or pest management.

The good news is that many California congressional representatives are stepping up to advocate more conservation dollars and overdue reforms. Last month, 36 of the state's 39 Democrats in the House of Representatives sent a letter to the House Agriculture leadership calling on Congress to "strengthen, not cut conservation programs."

The letter also urged the leaders to "enact reforms that increase effectiveness and improve the availability of these programs for all stakeholders, targeting resources in a more cooperative manner in regions and states like California that face the most pressing problems."

Eight California lawmakers make up more than half of the 15 co-sponsors of the Balancing Food, Farm and Environment Act of 2013 that would fully fund and increase the effectiveness of conservation programs. Parts of this bill are expected to be introduced as an amendment when the farm bill goes to the full House for a vote, likely in the next few weeks.

California's 53-member House delegation can make a real difference for our nation's farmers and families by voting for amendments that support full and smarter conservation funding, while trimming crop insurance subsidies that encourage unsustainable production. We all have a stake in the outcome. If you care about clean drinking water and healthier food and farms, let your representatives know that you want them to support smart conservation and crop insurance reforms in the farm bill.

Kari Hamershlag is a senior food policy analyst at Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy organization.

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