Environmental Laws Constrain Irrigation

CranesIn the last quarter of the 20th century, laws designed to protect the environment became what one water law expert called “a determining factor in the use and development” of irrigation for agriculture. A number of powerful laws governed agriculture in a variety of ways –

  • The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and has limited or cut off irrigation projects because they could hurt the river habitat of fish or wildlife.
  • The Clean Water Act (administered by the EPA) changed the way farmers can apply fertilizers or pesticides so that the runoff of those chemicals won’t become non-point sources of pollution and wash into streams, lakes and bays.
  • The Clean Air Act may regulate the a farmer’s production of greenhouse gases through his or her machinery or animal wastes. In December, the EPA issued a ruling that greenhouse gases threatened public health, setting the stage for new regulations. Exactly how those regulations could affect agriculture or other industries was not immediately apparent.
  • FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, registers all pesticides and restricts how farmers can use those pesticides. Most states have also enacted training laws requiring farmers to attend classes in how to use the chemicals.
  • “The Superfund” is officially known as CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. Under this law, the federal government can go after the dischargers of hazardous wastes into the environment. Most of the sites that have been put on the Superfund list are industrial plants, but there are some feedlots, pesticide dumps, groundwater contamination areas and grain elevators.
  • Various conservation programs are voluntary programs that encourage farmers to be good stewards of the land. Typically, these programs provide money for landowners who adopt conservation practices.

The Endangered Species Act is often seen as one of the most controversial environmental law. The law was passed, in part, because the plight of the endangered whopping crane became a public cause. Every year, the dwindling flock of birds migrated from their winter grounds in Texas, through Nebraska on the Central Flyway to Canada. They would stop and feast along the Platte River alongside their more numerous cousins, the Sandhills Cranes. By 1941, the best estimates were there were only 16 of the magnificent white birds left in the wild.

Irrigation development along the Platte was threatening critical habitat for the cranes. By the 1970s, it was estimated that fully three-quarters of the historic water flows of the Platte had been diverted for irrigation or drinking water. The cranes needed the water because it used to scour out small trees along the Platte. Without flood waters in the spring, trees were covering up the sand bars that cranes liked to roust on, away from humans.

In 1978, the state of Wyoming was completing the Grayrocks Dam on the North Platte River feeding the Platte. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) sued to protect habitat for the whoppers. In an out of court settlement, Wyoming agreed to pay Nebraska and the NWF $7.5 million to set up a non-profit trust to restore some of the whopper’s habitat along the Platte. The Whopping Crane Platte River Maintenance Trust has used that money to study the birds and, among other things, cut down the trees choking the Platte.

Now there are over 100 whopping cranes alive in North America.

The effect of the battle over the Platte and the Endangered Species Act has been to kill any new surface water irrigation projects in Nebraska in the last 40 years. Irrigation projects in other areas, like Oregon, have met similar fates.

Yet, despite the limits on irrigation growth many farmers in central Nebraska have embraced the whoopers and their cousins the sandhills cranes. Every year, thousands of eco-tourists descend on the region to watch the annual migrations.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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