Best of the West: Investments in drought-resilient agriculture and land management practices; geothermally heated subdivision; restoring whitebark pine populations; an 80-million-year-old fossil

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Feb. 13, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock, Helena Dore, and Brian Atkinson)

As agricultural producers and western communities adapt to historic drought conditions, federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will bring much-needed drought resiliency and water infrastructure projects to fruition. 

The big news on this front came when The Biden-Harris administration announced $728 million to "deliver clean, reliable drinking water to rural and Tribal communities, support water conservation in the Upper Colorado River Basin, and complete projects to improve water supply reliability" throughout the region. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service also announced that it will spend $25 million from the Inflation Reduction Act on a WaterSMART Initiative that supports 40 communities and agricultural producers. Officials will follow the Western Water and Working Lands Framework for Conservation Action to guide the initiative and address key water and property challenges across 17 western states. 

Three of the 40 priority areas are new, including California's Madera Irrigation District, Hawaii's Kohala Watershed Partnership Area, and the Quincy Columbia Basin Irrigation District West Canal Area in Washington

Federal investments in climate-smart practices are also helping farmers and ranchers adjust to the dry environment. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to allocate $850 million from the IRA for those interested in adopting environmentally friendly land management and conservation programs. Learn more about Western Governors' recommendations to incentivize landowners to adopt climate-smart cultivation and management practices. 

Colorado is using $125 million from the IIJA and IRA to expand a program that pays agriculturists for temporary and voluntary use of their water rights. This intervention helps sustain hydropower production at Lake Powell and Lake Mead during exceptionally parched years. 

Other western states are using IIJA grants to create long-term drought relief plans and promote water-based economic growth in rural areas. 

  • $77.56 million for the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Rural Water System in Montana for core pipeline construction, continued construction of a water treatment plant, as well as construction for segments associated with Havre, Chester, and Shelby Hub service areas.
  • $62.11 million for the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System in New Mexico for the construction of approximately 26 miles of raw water transmission pipeline.
  • $26.33 million for the Garrison-Diversion Unit of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program in North Dakota for efforts associated with the construction of water treatment plants, as well as efforts to support service on the Spirit Lake, Standing Rock and Fort Berthold Reservations.

Read more about all of the projects here

Geothermal Cost Savings: A 2,300-unit housing development in Steamboat Springs, Coloradoreceived approval for a ground-source geothermal heating system. Federal incentives could cover 40% of installation fees, and the technology could save residents millions of dollars in energy costs over time. Additionally, the state plans to implement an incentive program for geothermal advancements. Learn about Gov. Jared Polis’ commitment to expanding geothermal resources and watch a WGA webinar to learn more about Colorado Mesa University's geo-exchange heating and cooling system.

Restoring Whitebark Pine: Land managers and scientistsin Montana are creating a national restoration plan to revive declining whitebark pine populations. Officials are assessing the tree's apparent genetic resistance to invasive white pine blister rust and evaluating tolerance to cold temperatures and drought. The hope is that the trees will produce cones with rust-resistant seeds. Find out how WGA, the USDA, and the Department of the Interior collaborate to implement conservation programs

Manufacturing Goes West: Research by the Economic Innovation Group estimates that construction spending in the Mountain West increased five-fold over the last 18 months. Companies including Intel, Tesla, and Micron opened facilities in ArizonaNevada, and Idaho. "There's a lot of momentum behind the buildout that's happening now," said Kenan Fikri, a research director at EIG. "It suggests that this manufacturing job growth in the region could even accelerate in the years ahead as these plants come online." Learn more about Western Governors' policy on developing workforces to meet changing economic conditions. 

Extending Fossil Records: An 80-million-year-old fossil found  in California indicates that crops like coffee, potatoes, tomatoes, and mint existed at the same time as dinosaurs, defying current research. Brian Atkinson, a scientist at the University of Kansas, investigated the fossil, which "sheds new light on a critical interval." The findings extend the record of 40,000 species and are a piece of the puzzle to understanding ecological transitions during the Late Cretaceous period. 

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