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In the West, agriculture is water. It's that simple. Without water, our farm and ranch economy would dry up and blow away. Securing water to meet diverse and growing needs — from agriculture to municipalities to river health — is the greatest challenge facing the West today.

Farm Bill conservation programs are on the budgetary chopping block in Washington, D.C. Gutting the Farm Bill's highly successful water conservation programs in the name of deficit reduction would be a short-sighted and disastrous response to our water challenges.

More than ever, for on-farm producers to maintain their competitiveness and sustain their livelihoods, they've got to make sure they're using water as efficiently as possible.

But they face a huge obstacle: Our nation's irrigation infrastructure is rapidly aging. Across the West, thousands of small diversion dams and irrigation ditches are more than a half-century old. Often, these systems are anything but efficient. At the same time, for many ranchers, implementing new irrigation technology and infrastructure is often cost-prohibitive.

That's where the Farm Bill's little-known but highly effective Title II conservation programs — EQIP, AWEP, WHIP and others — play a key role. For more than 75 years, they've helped fund infrastructure modernization and conservation projects that benefit ag operations while protecting stream health and wildlife habitat.

Moreover, in a region where water has long been a source of fights, these projects foster good-faith collaboration among landowners, agencies, conservation groups and other partners that leverage resources to benefit everyone.

One example: On the Little Bear River in Utah, the Bess Ranch, in cooperation with Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and several other agency and private partners, implemented several upgrades, including a re-engineered water diversion dam and a conversion from flood irrigation to more water-frugal pivot sprinklers — changes that slashed water use by more than 50 percent during hot summer months. Some of those water savings went back into the river to benefit native populations of Bonneville cutthroat trout.

An added bonus: The irrigation pipes were fitted with small hydropower turbines, which will provide a clean, renewable source of energy to run the pivot sprinklers. A ranch gets a more efficient and profitable operation.

The rivers get healthy flows and restored wildlife and fish habitat. Taxpayers get shovel-ready projects that put people to work and improve our food system. What's not to like?

The project would not have happened without the help of Farm Bill Conservation Program funding.

Ranching and farming is a tough business. Families who've worked the land for generations to raise our beef or grow our food do so today on thin margins. In a volatile economy, the Farm Bill's conservation programs help to ensure that our water sources and infrastructure — and the ranches and farms that depend on them — are efficient, healthy and sustainable.

Congress needs to continue this wise investment in the future of our rural economy.

Dan Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, which works for availability of reliable, affordable irrigation water to Western farmers and ranchers. Scott Yates is director of the Western Water Project for Trout Unlimited, which conserves, protects and restores North America's coldwater fisheries and watersheds.

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