USDA Secretary Purdue commits to USDA listening sessions on Farm Bill implementation for acequias and land grants

Perdue to Udall: “We as a government have a responsibility” to use USDA assistance programs for farmers affected by PFAS contamination to their “fullest extent”

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WASHINGTON – At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, U.S. Senator Tom Udall questioned U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on his commitment to supporting core U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that Udall has championed, and that are vital to New Mexico’s farmers, ranchers, rural communities, including acequias and land grants who have faced historic obstacles to USDA funds. During his questioning, Udall urged Perdue to ensure that the USDA will do more to work with New Mexico to clean up PFAS contamination.

Udall secured a commitment from Perdue that USDA will gather local input on implementing new Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provisions that Udall included in the 2018 Farm Bill to allow acequias and land grants to access funding. Udall also urged the secretary to provide continuity in funding to acequias and land grants while the USDA finalizes its guidance.

In New Mexico, firefighting foam containing toxic PFAS chemicals used around Cannon Air Force Base and Holloman Air Force Base has contaminated nearby groundwater, causing serious damage to the local dairy industry, which is a major driver of the state’s economy. Udall secured an important commitment from Perdue to use all available authorities and to work with Congress where needed in order to provide much needed relief to farmers who have been impacted by the contamination of PFAS chemicals in their water sources.  

“Mr. Secretary, Senator [Susan] Collins and I recently sent you a letter asking for your assistance for farmers who have been devastated by PFAS contamination… Tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated milk dumped. Workers and livestock exposed through drinking water. And farmers facing bankruptcy -- one farmer has 4,000 cows that are contaminated,” Udall said during his questioning.

Udall asked, “I’m hoping you can work with us to ensure programs like the Dairy Indemnity Program and the Livestock Indemnity Program are used to their fullest extent for assistance. Can we get your commitment on that?”

Perdue replied that he would and noted, “We as a government have a responsibility.”

Udall then turned to implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, which includes a new provision championed by Udall and Senator Martin Heinrich that makes land grants and acequias eligible for funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program. New Mexico is home to many historic and legally recognized land grant communities and acequia irrigation systems dating back to Spanish colonial times that have struggled to access USDA programs in the past due to their unique nature. Expanding EQIP eligibility enables acequias and land grants to directly access this $2 billion a year program, which provides vital federal dollars for everything from maintenance to conservation measures. Udall questioned Perdue on how USDA plans to provide continuity in funding for acequias and land grants pending completion of the new EQIP rules, and pressed Perdue to gather local input on implementation, including listening sessions, meetings, and a public comment period.

Udall asked, “Mr. Secretary, I appreciate that new laws require new rules. But I do not want to lose the momentum while we await final EQIP rules. One idea is to allow acequias and land grants to enter into pilot project agreements… As you know, local input drives better decision-making so we hope that the NRCS will hold local listening sessions in New Mexico while you develop the EQIP rules.”

Perdue responded that USDA “certainly would welcome that.”