This fall, the U.S. Senate will be facing proposals moving through the House of Representatives that would slash funding for federal programs that help make Nebraska’s water cleaner, conserve soil and water, restore fish and wildlife habitat and help us all breathe easier.
As Congress scrambles to close the gap between federal government revenues and spending, these vitally important conservation programs—which together make up less than 1 percent of the federal budget—face harsh cuts or even elimination. Cuts in federal spending are more than just numbers in Washington; they will translate into loss of habitat and degradation of our natural resources here in Nebraska.
In a new report, “Conservation on the Chopping Block,” the Nebraska Wildlife Federation has analyzed a long list of federal programs that would be sharply cut or eliminated by proposals pending in Congress. The report documents the huge impact the budget cuts that have been enacted or proposed would have on fish, wildlife and Nebraska’s natural resources. A few examples from the report illustrate the depth of the threat.
Clean Water Sacrificed
The Environmental Protection Agency provides funds to states through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The funds are used for low-interest and no-interest loans to communities to deal with out-of-date drinking water, wastewater and sewer facilities.
Nebraska received about $16.9 million through these two programs this year—a sharp drop from the $24 million provided in 2010. Next year, the funds could help finance projects like new wastewater treatment systems in South Sioux City, an expansion of the wastewater treatment system in Lexington and separation of the sanitary sewers from the storm sewers in Plattsmouth to eliminate raw sewage going into the Missouri River. They could help install new wells to replace ones polluted by nitrates in Humboldt, Platte Center, Chadron, Ogallala and many other communities, and to replace wells polluted by arsenic in Shelton and Mead.
Sadly, the House of Representatives is considering legislation that would cut these two funds by another 39 percent, from about $2.5 billion this year to $1.5 billion in 2012.
In Nebraska, the result of those cuts would impact communities all over the state. Small towns and rural water districts could be left on their own to face the need to make large investments needed to keep our streams clean and our drinking water safe. Our Department of Environmental Quality has identified 651 projects around the state, with a total need of more than $1.1 billion, that would benefit from these two funds.
CRP Cuts Cost Habitat
The federal Farm Bill provides the largest single pot of funds for conservation on private land in Nebraska. In a state where over 95 percent of our land is privately owned farm or ranch land, these programs are crucial to reducing water pollution from farms, protecting our groundwater supplies, dealing with invasive species and restoring wildlife habitat.
The Conservation Reserve Program has historically been America’s largest private lands conservation program. It pays farmers to take environmentally fragile and highly erodible land out of crop production and plant perennial plants that conserve soil, protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat.
When the Farm Bill was rewritten in 2008, the program was cut by 18 percent, the result of a last-minute, back-room deal to shift money to other programs.
Because of that action, this year Nebraska will lose another 64,500 acres of land from the Conservation Reserve Program, as expiring contracts are not fully offset by new signups. Since 2007, the cut has translated into the loss of 327,785 acres from the program—a loss of over 500 square miles of habit in Nebraska. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is not tracking what happens to those acres, but the vast majority of this land—much of it highly erodible—appears to have gone back into corn production in Nebraska.
This year, the House proposed cutting more than $1 billion from other Farm Bill conservation and energy programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Like the cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program, those cuts will translate directly into lost habitat, more soil erosion, fewer wetlands, reduced water quality and increased pollution.
Missouri River Cast Adrift
In 2009 Congress authorized a $25 million study of the Corps of Engineers system of large reservoirs in the Missouri River basin. The study is reviewing the original purposes of the Pick-Sloan system—enacted in 1944—to determine if it is time to update the 65-year-old law to recognize that times have changed.
For example, does it make sense to reserve such a large proportion of the available storage in the major dams upstream for water to provide river flows in the summer for the handful of barges that use the Missouri River each year? Thanks to that policy, when 2011 started, just 22 percent of the reservoir capacity upstream was available to capture rain and snow melt and relieve flooding downstream.
As is now obvious, that 22 percent was not nearly enough. What is not so obvious is whether Congress or the Corps of Engineers will correct the problem. In fact, Missouri members of Congress insisted that the Corps of Engineers be prohibited from continuing the five-year Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study, and a majority of the House went along with the cut.
Without the information needed to understand the tradeoffs between flood control, navigation, recreation, irrigation, fish and wildlife and the other authorized purposes of the Pick-Sloan reservoirs, Congress and the Corps seem unlikely to reform the badly flawed management plan to prevent a repeat of the 2011 flooding.
Proponents of cuts, cuts and more cuts point to the growth in federal spending, which reached 25 percent of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GCP) this year, the highest since World War II. The Great Recession is a primary contributor, as personal income and business profits dropped and unemployment and food stamp payments soared, along with bailouts for the financial and auto industries.
Clearly there are opportunities to make existing federal programs more efficient and effective. As America winds down its involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there should be opportunities for major savings in defense spending. There are also opportunities to improve our environment by reforming federal programs that provide incentives to pollute, like crop insurance policies that encourage the destruction of rare native prairies. Federal tax subsidies to polluting industries like oil and coal production could be eliminated. Federal policies that provide below-market rental rates for grazing our national grasslands and other federal lands could be reformed, as could laws that let mining companies take minerals from taxpayer-owned lands without paying royalties.
Proponents of draconian cuts in federal conservation programs often fail to acknowledge the rapid decline in federal tax revenue as a share of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Between 1960 and 2002, total federal revenue bounced around between 17 percent and 21 percent of GDP. This year, the Office of Management and Budget estimates that total federal revenue will amount to just 14.4 percent of GDP, the lowest level since 1950.
The federal budget deficit is the gap between spending at 25 percent of GDP and federal revenues at 14 percent of GDP. Closing that gap will require substantial belt-tightening in every program area at the federal level. It will also require time to grow our economy. But it is hard to imagine a route to closing that deficit gap that is consistent with American values without addressing the tax side of the equation as well.
As Congress and the American people discuss their priorities for federal spending and tax policy, we must ensure that our air, water, land and wildlife do not become unintended victims.