Improvements Are Needed in USDA's Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act Reports

CED-80-132: Published: Sep 3, 1980. Publicly Released: Sep 3, 1980.

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GAO reviewed the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) efforts to promote better water management and conservation, focusing on whether USDA reports required by the Soil and Water Conservation Act of 1977 will contain useful and accurate information for making future water program decisions.

The reports do not fully comply with the act's intent. Initial evaluations by USDA included fewer than half of its current soil and water conservation programs. Evaluation of current programs is incomplete. Field personnel have problems developing information for the reports. Implementing water conservation techniques would: require less energy because the amount of water pumped to irrigate crops would be reduced; reduce agricultural water pollution problems; improve fish habitats; and alter streamflows. Institutional and social constraints greatly affect how much water can be saved. The inability to readily transfer water rights is inefficient because it can lock water into relatively low-value historical uses. By not using a water right, a farmer can lose the right, a situation which often causes some farmers to use excessive water. Low-priced water is a major constraint on water conservation because it offers users no incentive to save. Longstanding social attitudes and customs about water development and use are regarded by many Federal and State water experts as major constraints to implementing water conservation. The Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act clearly intended USDA to evaluate, on a continuing basis, each of its 34 current soil and water conservation programs and to periodically report the results to Congress. Failure to comply with the act's intent is due primarily to the early USDA decision to limit the analysis to certain programs. USDA would also increase the usefulness of its reports by including additional pertinent data.

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