Drought bill makes progress in Congress
By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — As the South battles yet another scorching drought, an Alabama congressman's proposal for helping farmers build their own small reservoirs is catching on in Congress.
Rep. Terry Everett, a Republican who owns a farm in his southeastern Alabama district, says his legislation would prevent losses by giving farmers irrigation grants upfront instead of handing out emergency aid after their crops have withered in the heat.
"If we had all the money that had been spent on drought aid just in Alabama the last 15 years, we could probably build every farmer in the Southeast a pond like that and also drop him a well," Everett said in an interview Thursday. "We get plenty of (rain) in Alabama ... the problem is it comes at the wrong time, in the winter and early spring, when it's not needed. What these ponds would do is allow us to capture that water and use it later on."
The proposal was included in the massive farm bill that passed the House last month. Everett's homestate colleague, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has introduced a similar measure in the Senate.
The House version calls for $30 million a year over five years, significantly less than the $200 million per year in the original bill Everett introduced in May. Everett said he would fight for more money as the farm bill moves toward final passage. Sessions' Senate bill, which has not yet been taken up, calls for $100 million per year.
Under the program, farmers could apply for grants to pay for up to half the cost of an irrigation project.
"We believe it would very much benefit farmers in Georgia," said Jon Huffmaster, legislative director for the Georgia Farm Bureau. And, he added, "That's the very definition of conservation — when you have an abundance of water to save some of it back and use it when you have a shortage."
Nearly the entire Southeast is undergoing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Large portions of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee are under extreme or exceptional drought.
the two worst categories.
Jeff Helms, a spokesman for the Alabama Farmers Federation, said after years of increasingly intense dry spells, his organization has concluded that the state's $43 billion agriculture industry can no longer rely on rainfall. But high costs have prevented farmers from installing irrigation systems, he said.
Helms and others noted that arid states in the West get massive federal subsidies for irrigation and water supplies. The Everett bill, they said, would give the other half of the country an opportunity to get similar support.
"A lot of farmers are excited about the possibility," he said. "Having irrigation doesn't necessarily save you when you're having a 100-year drought like we're having right now. What it does do in years when it's abnormally dry is it can turn a bad crop into an average or good crop."
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