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Subcommittee Considers Future of Watershed Projects

At a hearing today, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities, Resource Conservation, and Credit led by Chairman Bill Barrett (R-NE) reviewed a proposal to improve a watershed project in Texas and considered legislation responding to the maintenance and improvement issues involving a large number of similar projects originally funded by the federal government.

In November of 1998, the Natural Resource Conservation Service submitted to the House Agriculture Committee the watershed plan-environmental impact statement for improvements in the Bexar-Medina-Atascosa Counties Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, the Medina Valley Soil and Water Conservation District and the Alamo Soil and Water Conservation District in south central Texas.

If approved, this project would improve the system of dams and canals that originally were constructed in the early 1900s by a private company to provide irrigation to the area's growers and ranchers.

"Over the years, this system has deteriorated to such an extent that water losses through seepage and evaporation amount to as much as thirty-five percent of the water delivered for irrigation purposes," Barrett said.  "This project is extremely important to farmers and residents and would provide the needed conservation of water resources in the surrounding area."

Over 10,000 small flood prevention dams, mainly located in Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas, have provided conservation and other economic benefits to much of rural America since 1948.  The infrastructure of many of these projects, however, are at or near their designated life spans and need to be rehabilitated.

To this end, Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) introduced the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Amendments of 1999 (H.R. 728) as a federal response to this situation.  Under this legislation the federal government would provide financial assistance of at least sixty-five percent of total costs to local communities for making improvements in their projects.

"These projects are immeasurably important to rural communities," Barrett said. "In many areas water is the lifeblood of the economy and it is imperative that we work with local communities to ensure that a reliable supply of water is available to them in the future."

"If we take no action to rehabilitate, we will be left with the cost of removing these structures or faced with witnessing endangerment to life and property as these dams continue to age,"  Lucas said.   "And we would definitely watch our $8.5 billion investment in this successful partnership 'wash' away."

Barrett represents Nebraska's Third Congressional District — the largest corn-producing district in the country — in the U.S. House of Representatives.