USDA awards $10m in water grants as California eyes new water rights restrictions

The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded 21 grants totalling $10m to universities across the country to support solutions for critical water problems in rural and agricultural watersheds.

The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded 21 grants totalling more than $10 million to universities across the country to support solutions to critical water problems in rural and agricultural watersheds in the US.

The grants surpassed an initial target of $6 million announced last year, under a new initiative by NIFA, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The scheme is called the Water for Agriculture Challenge Area.

NIFA is expected to make a further $30 million available over the next five years for the initiative.

The grants come during a four-year drought in California, the state’s worst for decades, which has resulted in a raft of new legislation across the state aimed at conserving water at home and on farms. The Californian State Water Board recently announced its intention to restrict water rights.

“The warning, to holders of more than 36,000 water rights across the state, is designed to give water right holders advance notice to help them make difficult spring planting decisions,” reads a press release on California’s drought-focused website. “The availability of water is a key factor in those planting decisions. The warning is the second one this year; the first was issued in January.”

Californian water rights curtailments in 2014 affected more than 5,000 water rights and led to 400,000 acres of farmland left fallow and the loss of thousands of agricultural jobs. The release warns that’s “a situation that’s likely to be repeated this year”, warns the release.

Agriculture uses 61 percent of the US’s water, and as much as 80 percent in California, according to Time Magazine estimates.

“Water is our most precious resource, one that is essential for both human survival and well-being and for our ability to grow our crops and livestock,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director, in a statement. “By funding research, extension, and education for citizens and the agriculture community, we are able to proactively create solutions to water-related issues like drought and its impact on food security.”

AFRI’s Water for Agriculture Challenge Area is designed to develop regional systems for the sustainable use and reuse, flow and management of water. And also to tackle food production-focused water issues and environmental sustainability efforts.

Funding will be used “to develop management practices, technologies, and tools for farmers, ranchers, forest owners and managers, public decision makers, public and private managers, and citizens to improve water resource quantity and quality”.

This will include three critical areas including the water security of surface and ground water needed to produce agricultural goods and services; nutrient management in agricultural landscapes focused on nitrogen and phosphorous and reducing impacts of chemicals; and the presence and movement of environmental pathogens in the nation’s water supply, according to a USDA press release.

Earlier in March, USDA awarded $31.5 million in funding to organisations to support programs that help participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increase their purchase of fruits and vegetables.

USDA in February launched a $160 million fund for research, education and extension projects that aim to solve societal challenges. About $9 million of the funds will be made available for water projects. Grant recipients will be announced in early 2016.

The list of the universities awarded grants can be found here.