To do list: WAWG sets its 2020 legislative priorities

As 2020 kicks off, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers is gearing up for a busy year where trade, fighting mandatory carbon regulations and preserving the lower Snake River dams top the legislative to-do list.

“At the state level, we will be opposing any potential harmful carbon regulations that would unfairly impact our growers. Protecting the lower Snake River dams will also be one of our top priorities,” said Michelle Hennings, WAWG’s executive director. “At the national level, we’ll be monitoring continued implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, changes to the Conservation Reserve Program and, of course, trying to push Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. We encourage all of our members to get involved by coming with us to Olympia, writing letters to your state and federal officials and providing comments when the federal environmental impact statement on the Columbia-Snake River System is released, which is scheduled to happen in February.”

In the next three months, WAWG members, leaders and staff will travel across the country, from Olympia to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and agency officials to put forward the wheat industry’s priorities and concerns. WAWG leaders will also be attending the National Association of Wheat Growers annual winter meeting to help chart the national organization’s course. Here’s a closer look at some of the issues WAWG will be working on in the coming year.

Preserving the lower Snake River dams

In what feels like a never-ending cycle, the subject of dam breaching on the Columbia-Snake River System is once again dominating news cycles. Proponents of breaching the dams, specifically the lower Snake River dams, believe it is a necessary step to restoring Columbia River salmon runs that make up part of the diet of the Puget Sound orcas. Two things are scheduled to happen in the coming months that could have a significant impact on the discussion surrounding breaching the dams.

First, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are wrapping up a federally mandated environmental impact statement (EIS) on salmon and the Columbia-Snake River System. A draft EIS is scheduled to be released in the next few months with the final draft expected in June or July. When the draft EIS is released, the public will have the opportunity to submit comments.

Second, at the state level, a study commissioned by the governor’s office to have a neutral third party interview, among others, dam stakeholders, state and federal agencies and elected officials to gain their perspectives on lower Snake River dam retention and removal or breaching is nearing its conclusion. The governor’s office has said the report will not recommend whether or not the dams should be breached or removed, nor will it develop new or prioritize potential mitigation options. Both Hennings and Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, were interviewed. Hennings said her interview went very well, and she was able to communicate how important the lower Snake River dams are to the wheat industry.

WAWG is confident that dams and salmon can co-exist and breaching the dams would negatively impact the wheat industry’s ability to move grain economically and efficiently to ports in Portland and Vancouver. According to research published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, breaching the lower Snake River dams will likely not have a noticeable impact on the Puget Sound orcas as Columbia River salmon are but one part of their diet. In addition, WAWG believes the state process is redundant and an example of not using taxpayer dollars efficiently as the study duplicates the EIS process currently underway by the federal government.

Carbon regulation

In recent years, various forms of carbon regulation have made the rounds of the Washington State Legislature with mixed success from both legislators and voters. Last year, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill that mandates all energy used in Washington state be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we are done with potential carbon regulations. WAWG’s lobbyist, Diana Carlen, has warned growers at recent county meetings that carbon regulation, in the form of cap and trade or a low carbon fuel standard, is still very much on the agenda for the 2020 Legislative Session. 

Recognizing the need to direct WAWG efforts on potential carbon regulations, growers passed several resolutions at the 2019 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention in November. Growers agreed that WAWG should support recognizing agricultural practices as a benefit to the environment, and that any policy or regulation regarding practices that aid in the reduction of carbon should be administered through the farm bill. Growers also passed a resolution that said WAWG does not support any cap and trade, carbon sequestration or climate change provision without being a full partner in the development of any policy or legislation.

Trade and tariffs

While Pacific Northwest growers cheered the announcement that a deal had been struck with Japan that keeps U.S. wheat competitive with Canadian and Australian wheat, there is still much work to be done on the trade front.

With Mexico being one of the top markets for U.S. wheat, passage by the Senate of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is a top priority for the wheat industry. Although the majority of Eastern Washington’s wheat is sent to Japan, not Mexico, Nicole Berg, treasurer of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), says that passage of the USMCA will help all wheat growers because, “…the more markets that are open to U.S. wheat, the more wheat that is moved off the market.” Berg is also a past president of WAWG. 

“Because the majority of Eastern Washington’s wheat is exported, having fair trade agreements with our overseas customers is vital to the well being of our industry,” Berg said. “The longer we take to pass these trade agreements, the easier it will be for our overseas customers to find alternate suppliers. Once that happens, it will be that much harder for us to get those markets back.”

During their visits to Washington, D.C., WAWG leaders will be meeting with Washington’s congressional delegation and asking them to support passage of USMCA. WAWG is also urging the White House to end tariffs (and the resulting retaliatory tariffs that usually fall more heavily on the agricultural industry) and to re-establish overseas markets that are so important to Washington wheat growers that have been damaged in the current trade environment.

Transportation

Despite warnings that state and local governments could lose billions of dollars for transportation projects, voters overwhelmingly passed I-976, which lowers vehicle registration fees to $30. Wheat growers in Eastern Washington are heavily reliant on the roads and railways that help them move grain to market, and while WAWG supports lower taxes overall, the association opposes any cuts that could irreparably damage the state’s transportation system or make it hard to carry out needed maintenance.

Taxes

WAWG opposes any tax that unfairly targets rural populations, such as a pay-per-mile gas tax, because rural residents generally have to drive longer distances to access amenities, such as grocery stores or gas stations, or to commute to a job.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

The 2018 Farm Bill made several significant changes to CRP that could adversely affect Eastern Washington farmers. While the acreage cap was expanded to 27 million acres by 2023, rental rates and cost share rates were reduced. In addition, State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) acres are no longer excluded from county acreage caps, meaning counties with high SAFE acres may not have a general CRP sign-up this year. In Washington state, Douglas County, which has SAFE acres for sage grouse, is negatively impacted by this change.

WAWG is working with NAWG and the Farm Service Agency to find a solution to this problem. In the meantime, WAWG has passed resolutions that support the authority for the Secretary of Agriculture to waive the 25 percent CRP cap in a county that has a designated CPA (Conservation Priority Area).

Speaking of CPAs, WAWG supports research into how the Farm Service Agency determines which acreage is actually included in a CPA.

2018 Farm Bill 

WAWG will continue to monitor implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, including providing grower education on the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs. WAWG will also be working with Washington State University and the Farm Service Agency to hold workshops to help educate growers on 2018 Farm Bill changes to these programs.

DNR

A few years ago, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) terminated several leases in the Horse Heaven Hills early. The handling of the situation by DNR officials angered many farmers and strained relationships with the agency. DNR has reached out to WAWG to talk about how the department can regain the trust of growers, asking to work together to find a solution that would help better protect farmers in situations where leases are terminated early under their “better and higher use” lease agreement clause. 

Hennings said she is encouraged by DNR’s outreach, and WAWG will continue to work with the agency to address these types of situations.

Rural broadband

More and more growers are relying on technology to help them farm better and smarter, but that can be a problem in areas with unreliable access to the internet. WAWG will be supporting efforts by the state and federal government to expand high speed internet across rural America.

Continued use of glyphosate

Recognizing the critical role glyphosate plays in no-till and reduced tillage systems, WAWG supports the continued use of glyphosate for all applications and opposes cancelling crop protection product labels or uses unless equivalent replacement products are available.  

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