New farm bill's rich yield includes record funding for conservation, infrastructure and rural development

Jim Fahey
Director of Government Relations
APWA Washington Office

After scores of hearings and months of difficult negotiations over the future direction of the nation's agricultural policy, Congress this spring approved a new farm bill with record levels of funding, including a major boost for rural infrastructure, rural development and conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Called the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (HR 2646), the new law increases federal spending for agriculture by $73.5 billion over 10 years and reauthorizes up to $117 billion for a variety of federal programs supporting conservation, nutrition, public works and rural development. Notably, the law reverses the market-oriented farm policy set in the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act by increasing federal payments for certain commodities and creating billions of dollars in subsidies for grains and cotton.

While funding agricultural and commodity programs is a major goal of the new law, the legislation is also an essential element in defining and implementing the nation's economic development and conservation policy in rural areas. President Bush praised the legislation during the bill signing ceremony on May 13, 2002, noting that "the farm bill is important legislation, and it meets important needs."

Record funding for conservation efforts
Conservation constitutes a big part of those needs. The act provides a record $17 billion for a series of programs from wetlands and grasslands protection to water conservation and wildlife habitat protection. One program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, is authorized at $9 billion. It provides producers with cost-share and incentive payments to perform multiple land management practices to promote the enhancement of soil, water, air and other resources.

To help meet growing concerns over water conservation, the law provides $600 million for the Water Conservation Program. This program provides cost-share incentives and assistance for efforts to conserve ground and surface water, with $50 million reserved specifically to assist agricultural producers in the Klamath Basin.

Infrastructure also receives funding support under the law's conservation title. The Small Watershed Rehabilitation Program is funded at $275 million. This program provides essential funding for the rehabilitation of aging small watershed impoundments which have been constructed over the past 50 years. There are more than 10,000 small flood prevention dams which provide conservation and economic benefits to many rural areas. Many small dams in rural areas are in need of rehabilitation.

$1 billion for infrastructure and rural development
For rural development initiatives, the new law authorizes $1.03 billion for programs designed to support business development, rural infrastructure and access to technology and communications services. Specifically, $360 million is authorized for the Funding Rural Development Backlogs Program, which funds backlogged applications for water and wastewater programs.

The law extends the Water or Waste Disposal Grants Program. This program, authorized at $30 million per year through 2007, permits grants to qualified private nonprofit entities to capitalize revolving funds to finance pre-development costs and small loans for replacement of equipment, small-scale extensions, etc., for water and wastewater projects.

Another program, the Drinking Water Assistance Grants Program, directs that three to five percent of annual appropriations made for the Water or Waste Disposal Grants Program be used to address the ongoing needs of rural communities that may have difficulty providing safe and adequate quantities of drinking water to their residents.

The law authorizes the Water and Waste Facility Grants for Native American Tribes Program, providing $50 million per year in grants and $30 million per year in loans, and it extends the Grants for Water Systems for Rural and Native Villages in Alaska program.

The law also establishes a program to provide grants to multi-jurisdictional regional planning and development organizations to pay the federal share of the cost of providing assistance to local governments to improve the infrastructure, services, and business development capabilities of local government and of local economic development organizations. Funding is set at $30 million annually through 2007.

To improve access to broadband service, the new act includes a program to offer grants, loans, and loan guarantees at four percent, or market rate interest, to construct, improve, and acquire facilities and equipment to provide broadband service to rural communities with less than 20,000 residents. Funding is authorized at $100 million, $20 million per year in fiscal years 2002 through 2005 and $10 million per year in fiscal years 2006 and 2007.

USDA has more information
More information about the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 is available on USDA's official website at www.usda.gov/farmbill or by simply clicking on the 2002 Farm Bill icon on USDA's main website at www.usda.gov/. The 2002 Farm Bill icon will also appear on USDA agency websites.

The new website includes farm bill program details, questions and answers, program applications and sign-up forms, as well as other important materials from USDA agencies on farm bill implementation. The website will also contain advanced electronic applications to help program applicants receive program benefits faster and more efficiently.

To reach Jim Fahey, call (202) 408-9541 or send e-mail to jfahey@apwa.net.