SfL Board of Directors member Pat O’Toole, a Wyoming cattle and sheep rancher, testified today before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Committee, telling lawmakers that the massive, historical and devastating drought plaguing the West has gone on “with no end in sight.”
“We need to prepare for future droughts, not simply react to current hydrologic shortages,” the president of the Family Farm Alliance told the committee.
The Senate committee hearing, which was held to address short- and long-term solutions to extreme drought in the Western United, is a positive sign that Congress is working to gain a full understanding of the weather-induced crisis most experts say is attributable to climate change and looking for ways to address it.
The challenge is formidable. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the 2020 Northern Hemisphere land and ocean surface temperatures set a 141-year record. With the rapidly rising temperatures, droughts are becoming longer and more extreme around the world, says the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
How severe will the impact of these climate extremes be on U.S. food production? A National Air and Space Administration (NASA) study published in Nature Food last fall says climate change induced by increased emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases may drop the production of corn by as much as 24 percent by 2030.
In another finding, The Weather Channel says that in California, which has the fifth largest economy in the world and is the nation’s top agricultural producer, the first four months of 2022 were the driest on record – and the state is about to enter its dry season. Much of the Southwest and Plains have been much drier than usual, fueling drought.
On the plus side, the number of U.S. farmers who adopt no- and low-tillage practices, which reduce the amount of climate-warming soil carbon released into the atmosphere, is growing. The 2017 Census of Agriculture (the latest with data available) shows 37 percent of tillable acreage in the U.S. is no-tilled, up 2.4 percentage points from the 2012 Census, and 35 percent is in reduced tillage, up 7 points from 2012. In addition to better carbon retention, the conservation tillage methods also improve soil health, stem water pollution, and reduce a grower’s energy and pesticide use.
U.S. agriculture also offsets emissions by growing crops for energy use, with nearly 40 percent of the annual corn crop used to produce lower carbon ethanol that is blended in gasoline. Also, some 30 percent of the nation’s soybean crop is grown to produce low-carbon biodiesel.
While producers are increasing their efforts to stem the factors that affect the climate, O’Toole addressed a resource heavily impacted by climate change when he told the Senate committee that improved infrastructure is needed to protect future water supply reliability. He said farmers and ranchers were grateful when Congress acted on plea from more than 220 organizations last year and included Western water infrastructure provisions in economic recovery and infrastructure legislation.
But he also testified that water management in the West is becoming too inflexible. Water users served by Western federal water projects are facing “regulatory droughts” brought on by governmental efforts to manage environmental demands for limited water resources. O’Toole said a broader view of how water is used to meet environmental needs is required – “one that considers state water laws, science, population growth, food production and habitat needs.”
The annual occurrence of fierce Western wildfire disasters underscores the importance of improving on-the-ground management and restoration actions that can lead to improved forest health, which benefits every Western watershed’s water supply capability, he said.
O’Toole said, “Now is the time for collaboration, not confrontation. Now more than ever, ag producers, municipalities, tribes and conservation groups need to come together to provide locally driven solutions. If we don’t, the public policies and resource management strategies that we need to maintain a viable and sustainable rural West will be impossible to achieve.”
The focus applied by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the crisis is a welcome indication that our nation’s lawmakers are taking seriously this very real threat to our existence. USDA should also be commended for its leadership in tackling changing conditions, including through the work done at its 10 regional climate hubs, which support USDA’s Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan connecting science and practice. We urge lawmakers and the Biden administration to continue their vigorous pursuit of measures that address the economic, environmental and public health challenges this crisis is creating.