Agriculture Committee OKs Bills to Help Farmers Access Water

A farm in the Dorothea area on the West End of St. Thomas. (Photo by Bethaney Lee)

The Committee on Economic Development, Regulations and Agriculture moved forward two bills during a Thursday hearing on St. Croix that would help farmers keep a consistent water supply for agricultural needs.

Bill 33-0037 is an act requiring the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to identify and rehabilitate a total of seven ponds, five in the St. Croix District and two on St. Thomas, to capture stormwater runoff. It also directs DPNR to maintain the ponds.

Though DPNR Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol was not present for the senate hearing, his written testimony was supportive of the overall intent of the bill. However, he expressed reservations about the 180-day timeframe for the entity to establish a stormwater management plan.

“Requiring the inter-agency committee to actually formulate a stormwater management plan within 180 days, as we have stated on many previous occasions, this is an unrealistic timeframe to accomplish this task. Of the departments named in the measure to participate on the inter-agency committee, none have existing personnel with the technical expertise in stormwater engineering and landscape design to create a stormwater management plan,” Oriol’s testimony read.

Oriol said that though there are federal funding opportunities available through the U.S. Army Corps Planning & Assistance to States Program, the program is competitive and would have to be applied for and awarded to the department before any benefit would be seen. He added that while a request for technical assistance to the department’s federal partners could be put in, he could not guarantee their support in achieving a 180-day mandate.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Nelson Petty said Public Works is developing road repair projects throughout the territory, “taking steps to access drainage impacts in each watershed.” He said the department is already in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will be conducting a Coastal Resilience Assessment in the territory, which could provide critical information useful for the bill’s intent.

Also discussed was bill 33-0065 which would require the Department of Agriculture to establish and implement a Well Drilling Unit Program in each district. The bill appropriates $300,000 in funding for that purpose, $180,000 for the St. Croix District and $120,000 for the St. Thomas-St. John District.

“The truth is we have no clue what is going on in the water beneath us. There has been proof of sewer seepage and other contaminants into our aquifers, including oil from the previous refinery and other troubling factors that contributed. We need to know the capacity of our water supply across the territory,” Sen. Allison DeGazon said.

With bill 33-0065 DeGazon said a thorough study can be conducted and the government can help deliver a supply of water to farmers who have needed it for some time.

Present for the vote on each bill were Sens. DeGazon, Kurt Vialet, Athneil Thomas, Oakland Benta, Marvin Blyden, and Alicia Barnes, who all voted in favor of both bills. Sens. Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis, and Myron Jackson were absent.

The bills will now move to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further review.