Congress and the incoming administration are getting ready to undertake the largest government plan to jump-start the economy since the Great Depression. Everything from tax cuts to road projects are being bandied about for this package. One area of importance, however, that isn’t receiving the attention it deserves is stimulus spending for conservation infrastructure.
If you are looking to give the economy of rural America a shot in the arm, few projects could have more impact than putting dollars toward efforts like repairing flood control dams, abandoned mine clean-up in areas like Tar Creek, installation of conservation practices for water quality work protecting drinking water, operation and maintenance of existing flood control structures and construction of new flood control dams in areas prone to flooding.
In Oklahoma alone, plans for over 300 dam sites have been completed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and are only waiting for federal funds to begin construction. In addition, over 1,000 Oklahoma dams will be past their design life in the next 10 years. At an average cost of $1 million per dam, millions of dollars could be spent over the next twenty-four months on “shovel ready” rehabilitation projects, which will hire Oklahomans and spend money directly in rural communities. On top of this, ongoing operation and maintenance of existing dams face a nation-wide backlog. Dollars spent on maintenance needs such as brush clearing, erosion repair and maintenance of spillways also result in fuel and equipment purchases, metal and concrete purchases and hiring individuals to undertake this work.
In addition to the economic benefits of flood control spending, work in areas such as non-point source pollution control to protect water quality would also provide needed dollars to help the economy. In our state, well over 50 percent of all streams are considered impaired for nutrients or bacteria. By cost-sharing with landowners to undertake projects such as riparian restoration, pasture management and conversion to no-till farming, we are helping the environment and saving downstream cities the cost of cleaning up their water. We also are stimulating the rural economy by ensuring that dollars will be spent hiring land contractors and fence crews, purchasing new farm equipment and fencing supplies, and increasing spending on inputs like seed and fuel.
In the area of abandoned mine reclamation, Oklahoma has thousands of acres of mine locations that are in desperate need of attention. Working to clean up these sites, reclaiming the land and managing subsidence would provide additional economic stimulus through purchase of inputs and labor needed to undertake the work — providing additional revenue to our rural areas.
Our country is facing grave economic challenges. Over the course of the next few months many choices must be made. One thing, however, is clear: If we want to stimulate the economy in every part of the United States and protect our resources for future generations, investment in conservation infrastructure spending needs to be part of any recovery package.