Water Well Journal Q&A

Published On: April 17, 2020By Categories: Features, Irrigation, Rules and Regulations

John Farner, NGWA federal affairs director, talks groundwater, irrigation, and government policy.

By Thad Plumley

John Farner

John Farner must like to be busy. For more than a year now he has been doing double duty as the government and public affairs director for the Irrigation Association and the federal affairs director for the National Ground Water Association.

The two associations have worked together for several years. They have collocated their annual trade shows in 2016 and 2019 in Las Vegas, and this past March marked the fourth consecutive year members of NGWA, IA, and the Water Quality Association have convened in Washington, D.C., for the Water Resources Congressional Summit.

Best known to NGWA members as the NGWA Fly-In, the associations combined to have 110 water professionals take to Capitol Hill talking to lawmakers about issues of importance.

“It’s been an honor to represent both the Irrigation Association and National Ground Water Association in Washington D.C.,” says Farner, who has been with IA for 12 years. “I think it has not only opened doors for both organizations, but it has also opened up opportunities for both organizations to support issues that they may not have been aware of in the past.”

Farner’s background certainly aligns with the associations. He has more than 20 years of experience in government and public affairs closely relating to technology, water, agriculture, and the environment.

His expertise in government and public affairs, gleaned from serving on staffs for two members of Congress and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, is closely aligned with issues affecting water use in agricultural production and landscape management.

Since the May issue of Water Well Journal focuses on irrigation and groundwater, we thought this was the perfect time to catch up with Farner and discuss irrigation issues impacting groundwater professionals.

WWJ: The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in April 2019 that irrigation is going to grow, and that irrigated farmland had climbed to a record 58 million acres. Do you think that is a trend that can continue? If so, why?
John Farner: I think it is a trend that has to continue. More and more pressure is being placed on U.S. farmers and ranchers to produce not only a safe and reliable food supply, but also energy and fiber. Not only do we need to produce more as a nation, we need to do so with less land and less inputs (water, nutrients, etc.). Irrigation helps manage yield, while efficiently irrigating increases yield while saving water.

WWJ: The USDA is scheduled to conduct a survey on the number of groups supplying irrigation water to farmers and conservation policies for the first time since 1978. When might that be available? What do you expect the report to show?
John: We hope the data will be available later in 2021. Irrigation infrastructure, including storage and conveyance, is extremely important for the future of U.S. agricultural production. Even though agriculture is extremely dependent on groundwater as a source for irrigation, surface water availability will also be crucial to ensure we have enough water to meet the demands placed on our nation’s farmers and ranchers.

This survey will primarily focus on surface water delivery. We anticipate the data will show that while strides have been made in updating the United States’ storage capacity and delivery mechanisms, significant work still needs to be done in bringing our infrastructure into the 21st century.

WWJ: In addition to the western United States, research suggests the eastern United States will also be impacted by the lowering of the water table. How is climate change and depleting groundwater impacting irrigation?
John: Water availability is a big concern for the future of the irrigation industry. In order to ensure water is available for the current and future generations, we need to measure, effectively manage, and efficiently use our water resources. As surface water becomes less and less available, more and more dependence will be on groundwater for irrigation.

John Farner (above) speaks to attendees at the Water Resources Congressional Summit earlier this year in Washington, D.C. Attendees from both associations and the Water Quality Association attended the event.

We saw this during the last drought in California. Groundwater was not regulated, surface water was not available, and farmers turned to groundwater to meet their needs. No matter where we are in the United States, we need to effectively manage our groundwater. We need to measure, manage, and use it efficiently to ensure our groundwater levels are sustainable for years to come.

As surface water becomes less and less available, more and more dependence will be on groundwater for irrigation.

WWJ: When you speak with irrigators today, what are the biggest water issues they face?
John: Availability and reliability. Farmers rely on a reliable water supply each year. However, more and more demands are placed on our nation’s water resources: urban (human consumption), agriculture, and the environment all need water. Groundwater, if managed properly, has been a constant reliable source of water for agricultural irrigation.

WWJ: You were part of the 2020 NGWA Groundwater Fly-In and Water Resources Congressional Summit in March that saw attendees from around the country talk to their representatives about key groundwater industry issues. What kind of impact are you seeing from NGWA’s presence in Washington, D.C., after more than two decades of Fly-Ins?
John: Members of Congress recognize NGWA and its members as reliable resources on groundwater issues. This is evident in the current discussions relating to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).

When a legislator is developing legislation or has a question relating to PFAS, NGWA is on the top of their list as a resource. Building on the great work that NGWA members have made here in Washington D.C., and back home in their states and districts, NGWA is well poised to make a big difference relating to PFAS resources for private well owners, managed aquifer recharge projects, and other issues relating to groundwater contractors and scientists.

WWJ: NGWA supports the U.S. House of Representatives Bill 5339 (“Freedom to Invest in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act”), which would use 529 savings accounts to cover workforce training, certification, and credentialing program costs. Can you provide an update on this bill?
John: This bill is relatively new and represents a new concept to assist professionals with investing in certifications and continuing education associated with those certifications. We are encouraged about the interest of this bill and hope that with more and more support, the bill will eventually be signed into law.

WWJ: There are several bills in both houses of Congress concerning PFAS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced proposals in the last year as well. Are there some that you see passing this year? Where do you see the PFAS issue going?
John: Unfortunately, PFAS have become a political issue. The bill that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year was done so primarily on party lines. If the Senate debates a PFAS bill this year, it will look a lot different and will not have much of a chance passing the House.

However, I think we do have an opportunity to advocate for PFAS legislation that will be passed in stages. There is bipartisan support to provide technical and financial resources for private well owners. Our job is to support legislation that does not try to tackle everything at once, but rather addresses areas of PFAS that have the potential to make a big difference.

WWJ: Lastly, NGWA and IA have collocated their annual conventions in 2016 and 2019. What benefits have you heard from IA members and exhibitors?
John: The attendees and exhibitors of the Irrigation Show and Education Week truly enjoy collocating with Groundwater Week. Being able to see the technologies used to drill wells, along with networking with groundwater professionals, are among the top benefits we have heard from our members. We see this partnership as a natural fit and look forward to our continued partnership in the future.


Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.

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