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Some 44 percent of the U.S. population depends on groundwater, the water that fills cracks and other openings in beds of rock and sand, for its drinking water supply – be it from either a public source or private well. In rural areas, the number is about 96 percent. That fact alone justifies the need for National Groundwater Awareness Week, to be observed March 5-11.

But groundwater is important to us in many other ways, as well. Consider the following.

Groundwater provides much of the flow of many streams. Often lakes and streams are “windows” to the water table. Groundwater adds 492 billion gallons per day to U.S. surface water bodies. In large part, the flow in a stream represents water that has flowed from the ground into the stream channel.

Scientists estimate U.S. groundwater reserves to be at least 33,000 trillion gallons – equal to the amount discharged into the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River in the past 200 years.

The United States uses 79.6 billion gallons per day of fresh groundwater for public supply, private supply, irrigation, livestock, manufacturing, mining, thermoelectric power and other purposes.

Groundwater is tapped through wells placed in water-bearing soils and rocks beneath the surface of the Earth. There are nearly 15.9 million of these wells serving households, cities, business and agriculture every day. Wells are constructed by the 8,100 contracting firms employing nearly 45,000 people dedicated to providing and protecting our nation’s groundwater supplies.

Irrigation accounts for the largest use of groundwater in the United States, about 67.2 percent of all the groundwater pumped each day. Some 53.5 billion gallons of groundwater are used daily for agricultural irrigation from more than 407,913 wells. Irrigation is a major reason for the abundance of fresh produce and grains that we all enjoy.

One ton of groundwater used by industry generates an estimated $14,000 worth of output.

These facts help us connect with the important role we each play as stewards or protectors of groundwater. Man can adversely affect the resource. Fortunately, there are simple steps that will help protect groundwater and the wells systems that distribute it.

Always use licensed or certified water well drillers and pump installers when a well is constructed or serviced or when the pump is installed or serviced.

Keep hazardous materials away from any well. Never dump such materials, motor oil or anything else that could impact water quality, onto the land surface, into a hole or pit or into a surface water supply.

These tips and more are available from sources such as a state groundwater or water well association, National Ground Water Association (NGWA) or from your county agricultural Extension agent or state government agency with responsibility for groundwater. A convenient source for a broader understanding of our groundwater protector role can be found at wellowner.org, a web service of NGWA.

National Groundwater Awareness Week is not a celebration such as the Fourth of July has become. Instead, we should use the week to reflect more deeply on groundwater’s value and its contributions to our lives.

As I look back on 2016, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to work alongside you and serve as your American Farm Bureau president. I am proud of the work our nation’s farmers and ranchers do day-in and day-out. I am equally proud of how our state and national Farm Bureau staff work just as tirelessly to ensure farmers and ranchers can continue to feed and fuel our country and the world for generations to come.

When I addressed you for the first time as your American Farm Bureau president in Orlando last January, I committed to working with you all to solve the problems facing agriculture – and that’s just what we’re doing.

This year, I’ve had the privilege of visiting 33 states – and counting – across our great country to meet with Farm Bureau members face-to-face. Each region, every state and all types of agriculture have unique challenges. I have been heartened by one common thread – a reminder of just how critical the reforms Farm Bureau is fighting for are to rural families and farm businesses.

Looking ahead to 2017, we see a clear need for regulatory and tax reform that frees farmers and ranchers to keep their businesses running and gives them flexibility to invest in their local economies. We need to put a stop to regulatory overreach that threatens to put a chokehold on farmers. We need greater access to markets around the world and a stable, legal workforce to ensure we continue leading the world in agricultural production. But none of these reforms will happen if we don’t unite around the table and speak up. 

As I’ve traveled our great country, I’ve been reminded time and again of how much we can accomplish when we learn from our differences and work together.

America’s farmers and ranchers aren’t defined by our struggles. We’re defined by what we do best. We lead, feed and fuel the world.

We didn’t take up the work of farming and ranching because we expected it to be easy. While agriculture is our business, it is also our calling. We are called to take up this work out of love for our family and our neighbors. It’s a mission we take seriously because we believe we’ve been given a unique task to care for the land and animals entrusted to us by our Creator. We have a responsibility to consumers as we grow the highest quality food, fiber and fuel while protecting our precious natural resources. We must continue to earn consumer trust as we strive for continuous improvement in everything we do.

The great story of American agriculture is one of hard work, ingenuity and passion, and it’s a story best told by the folks who live it. Farmers and ranchers made their voices heard in 2016, but we need to keep telling our stories if we want to be at the heart of shaping the policies that will impact our businesses and way of life. The close of one year ushers in new goals for the next, and I am confident that working together through Farm Bureau offers us that common platform for progress. During this new year, I will continue to learn about your challenges and your triumphs, and like 2016, I look forward to hearing many of your stories face-to-face.

Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Ga., is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Dissolution of special districts, penalties for wanton destruction of livestock, trespassing for shed antler hunters and speed-limiting devices were among the many topics included in policies adopted at the 97th annual meeting of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation (WyFB). Held Nov. 10-12 in Laramie, the meeting is an important step in the grassroots policy development process of Farm Bureau.

“The Farm Bureau grassroots policy development process ensures that our policy begins at the local level,” WyFB Executive Vice President Ken Hamilton explained.  “By the time a resolution enters the policy book it has been reviewed by members at three different levels; county, district and state.”

Farm Bureau members approved policy opposing additional dissolution authority for special tax districts in Wyoming. 

“Our members expressed concern about potential legislation that would give county commissioners additional authority to initiate the process to dissolve a special district,” Hamilton said. “While we recognize there needs to be a mechanism for dissolving special districts, we also have to recognize in many instances there are laws on the books that will already help facilitate this process.”

“Many of these special districts were created to accomplish different public purposes and our members feel it would be important that the members of those districts have a say,” he continued. 

According to Brett Moline, WyFB director of Public and Government Affairs, Wyoming law allows for 28 different types of special districts, and there are over 650 special districts within the state. 

Concern with increasing incidences where people have shot and killed livestock in Wyoming and other states, members passed policy related to the wanton destruction of livestock.

“Voting delegates felt the penalty should be substantial enough to deter future actions,” Hamilton explained. “The policy asks for legislation that anyone found guilty of wanton destruction of livestock would have to pay a fine four times the value of the animal as restitution to the animal’s owner.”

Protecting private property rights are at the forefront of the Federation’s work. Concern with increased incidences of shed antler hunters trespassing on private lands led to policy supporting the expansion of Game and Fish statutes to include collecting shed antlers in the trespass authority of the hunting and fishing regulations. 

“This authority would make it so people gathering shed antlers on private property without the landowner’s consent could be charged with trespass similar to hunting trespass,” Hamilton explained. “Under current Game and Fish statutes, the hunting trespass law provides that it is presumptive knowledge the individual that is hunting should know where they are at while hunting which makes fining them for trespass easier. The same should be true for trespass while collecting shed antlers.”  

In other issues related to the Game and Fish Department, policy was passed asking that the Game and Fish Commissioners continue to be appointed by the Governor.

On the national level, voting delegates believe the Land and Water Conservation Fund should not receive funding. If it receives funding, the policy continues by asking that federal land acquisition not be allowed.

“We need less, not more, of federal land ownership,” Hamilton stated. 

WyFB members adopted policy opposing the federal government’s efforts to create a dual speed limit in Wyoming, one for commercial vehicles and one for non-commercial vehicles. Policy also passed opposing speed limiting devices in commercial vehicles.   

“Requiring commercial trucks to travel slower than other vehicles on the roadway could increase traffic hazard on the roads,” Hamilton said.

“These policies will be added to our policy book to help guide the Federation in the work we do to protect private property rights,” Hamilton concluded.

There can be two different points of view when it comes to implementing a weed management program. Some believe action is the foundational key to all success. Others might believe in the adage that success doesn’t happen – it’s planned for. I am not sure I can tell you which philosophy I adhere to the strongest, but my ego keeps trying to assure me I live somewhere in the middle.

The value in the two philosophical approaches, when applied to landscape-scale, is weed management programs may be the perfect example of an antinomy, contradictive statements but both apparently obtained by correct reasoning. So instead of arguing over the two, we may be better served to look at the key elements shared by both planning and action when it comes to weed management.

It won’t take long for even the novice observer to see both share three broad categories – policy, capacity and funding. Each of these has their own set of challenges and barriers. The complexity of each also increases as we try to address them on the county, state and federal management levels. Yet, when a landscape-scale management program finds the balance between the three, typically planning and action are mutually rewarding.

A successful program doesn’t have to be perfect in all three categories. Where funding falls short, there may be ways through policy and capacity to balance the shortcomings. However, if one of the three elements is severely restricted or underutilized, the other two become ineffective. Likewise, none of the three will ever be perfected in a landscape-scale approach.

Capacity

Capacity is the least concerning of the three in Wyoming. With Weed and Pest Control Districts established in each county, the availability of qualified and experienced help is readily accessible to both private and government land management practitioners. Not only does this resource assist landowners with noxious weed and pest management planning and control, they are also used by state agencies, such as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, for professional assistance in their noxious weed programs. Federal agencies such as Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation also depend on the districts when it comes to implementing noxious weed management. Furthermore, when emergency situations such as West Nile virus and grasshopper outbreaks present themselves, most of the districts have found the capacity to assist or implement large-scale programs to address them.

Funding

Funding for noxious weed management in Wyoming may not be as consistent as capacity. However, it has been enhanced due to the capacity of the Weed and Pest Control Districts. Contracting with the districts reduces costs for state programs, such as WYDOT’s right-of-way noxious weed control. This minimizes additional costs and equipment burdens for WYDOT to run the program internally. Additionally, with the availability of established districts, utilization of state and federal grant funds is maximized for on-the-ground treatments without the need to charge program-crippling administrative fees.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a need for improvement in funding. Federal and state funding goes through trends sometimes associated with current events. Grants can be especially unstable from year-to-year, making long-term planning an intimidating endeavor. Recently, many of the state grant programs utilized for weed management and other natural resource projects have been reduced to offset budget shortfalls. To compensate, many Weed and Pest Control District boards have effectively utilized reserve accounts within their budget planning to stabilize long-term objectives and for unforeseen emergencies such as cyclic grasshopper outbreaks.

Policy

Policy often feels like the most abundant and burdensome of the three, especially when dealing with the federal lands. Federal regulatory policy, such as National Environmental Policy Act and agency pesticide risk assessments, can be unnecessary, burdensome and slow. However, federal policy can also be constructive such as the National Framework for Early Detection and Rapid Response; 2016-18 National Invasive Species Management Plan; Invasive Plant Management and Greater Sage Grouse Conservation; and Presidential Executive Order 13112 – Safeguarding the Nation from Impacts of Invasive Species update.

However, as Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

In the case of noxious weed management, too much policy without complementary funding and resources becomes ineffective and pointless. With the support of the Wyoming Weed and Pest Council, both Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) have tried to address this problem with federal legislation aimed at removing federal policy and funding barriers obstructing invasive species management.

As complicated and variable policy, capacity and funding can be on a landscape-scale weed management program, control is not an unachievable goal, but that isn’t to say it’s easy, either. The efforts of the Weed and Pest Control Districts to effectively address these three components is largely why they can routinely provide high quality weed and pest control.

The end result is successful actions and effective planning that is a benefit to the counties and the state.

Editor’s Note: Shaun Sims presented these remarks during the opening General Session during the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) Annual Convention on Nov. 15.

Welcome to the 71st annual convention of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts.

Today, I want to focus my comments on what I believe are the highest priority issues we are facing, and in keeping with the theme, the importance of conservation district elected officials performing their duties with the utmost attention to transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility.

As you know, the Legislature, in this last session, passed a bill creating a Special District Task Force. That Task Force includes two Senators, two House members and Gubernatorial-appointed representatives of the County Clerks, Secretary of State office, County Commissioners, Tax Payers Association, Minerals industry representative and three special district representatives which included myself, Josh Shorb of the Weed & Pest and Mark Pepper of the Improvement and Service districts. This Task Force began meeting in June and met a total five times. I attended and represented districts with elected boards at all five meetings.

The Task Force has advanced several legislative proposals to the Joint Corporations Committee. The Committee took these up on Nov. 21-22.

I want to take this opportunity to share the WACD Board of Directors, view on the legislation. The Board has been in constant discussions on the proposals. We have had ongoing communications and have provided direction in representing WACD member interests.

First, before I get into the legislation, some background.  There are 28 types of special districts authorized in state statute. These special districts range from fire districts, museums, cemetery and conservation, as well as joint powers boards and a number of others.  There are, based on information provided by the Department of Audit, 671 total districts as of last count.  There are approximately 2,350 citizens in our communities that serve on special district boards providing an array of services such as watershed protection, weed management and fire services. 

We do not believe that additional dissolution mechanisms are necessary. I do not, as a Task Force member, believe that the testimony we heard and the information we were provided, combined with my personal knowledge, having worked with and served on a number of special district board’s in my own county, warrants these additional authorities.

Further, the WACD Board and I question whether initiating a dissolution process is the appropriate response to a special district that may have failed to hit some of the steps required throughout the myriad of statutes that apply to districts. Those of us who have been through the district supervisor training and the district manager certification process know there is a pretty extensive list of requirements. Jumping from a district failed to file a report or some paperwork to a fairly involved dissolution process that includes us, as the special districts developing findings of fact and a dissolution plan within 30 days of a County Commission triggering the process, just doesn’t make sense to me.

And what happens to the services and projects should a special district be dissolved? I can tell you personally I still need my water delivered, water development to occur, fires to be fought and our deceased to be buried.

We recognize that there are some what appear to be isolated issues with special districts in their compliance and governance. We absolutely agree these should be addressed. We believe there are adequate statutory mechanisms in place to do so. These districts were formed for a reason.

The WACD has consistently reiterated that training will solve most all of the potential issues occurring.  If training doesn’t address the issue, we believe there a number of statutes on the books, that if enforced, would. The importance of the training cannot be reiterated, and WACD has been participating in a workgroup formed by the Task Force to help develop a statewide special district training program forward. We remain committed to that effort. To help this effort, we opened this week’s training up to any special district board member that was interested. We added to ability to participate via videoconference, so folks didn’t have to travel.

We had a special district training on Nov. 17. This was done in a large part to provide our new supervisors, or those who haven’t yet participated in training, the opportunity to do so, given the potential new requirement that is included in one of the other bills being advanced by the Task Force, the budget requirement bill.

Generally, the WACD Board does not have significant concerns with the bill. Most of it is existing statute or actions. Districts were already taking such as developing reserve policies.  What will be new is the discretionary authority of the County Commissioners to require a district to present your budget in what essentially will be a pre-budget hearing, to the commissioners and also demonstrate that they are conducting open meetings and have received training. This is the one provision that causes the Board concern.  We question the appropriateness of requiring elected board members to demonstrate training when, one, it is not a condition of holding the position, two, are we requiring training of all elected officials and three, given there is not currently a consistent statewide special district training program it is premature.

But again, we remain committed to helping see a statewide training program get put in place. Our Executive Director Bobbie Frank will continue to dedicate a portion of her time to helping with this effort to see it to completion.

I personally believe that one of the most efficient forms of government is the special districts. Over $1.2 million annually in this state is donated in the form of the time local district supervisors and the other special district board members, contribute to providing needed services. And this is likely a gross underestimation of time.

Lastly, the Task Force at their last meeting in October voted to recommend to the Joint Corporations that the Task Force be continued into the coming year. There was a list of topics the Task Force suggested be the focus of their work. The list is extensive.

Are special districts perfect? Absolutely not. Sometimes local districts can be a bit challenging, but its grassroots, self-governance at the most local level. That is this organizations mission, local grassroots self-governance.