Senators Vet Agriculture Bills and Updated on The Department of Agriculture Operations

Published: Feb 25, 2020

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Economic Development, Regulations and Agriculture chaired by Sen. Allison DeGazon convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday and voted on two bills regarding water catchments and the V.I. Agricultural Caribbean Symposium. Lawmakers were also updated on the status of operations for the Department of Agriculture (DOA). All approved items will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Senators voted to hold in committee: Bill No. 33-0229- An act amending title 3, chapter 17, section 291 of the Virgin Islands Code by replacing supervision and control of existing water catchment areas under the Department of Agriculture to be used for agricultural purposes; and amending Title 30, chapter 3, subchapter II, section 66 of the Virgin Islands Code, by relieving the Commissioner of Health from the responsibility for protection of water catchment areas and placing the responsibility upon the Commissioner of Agriculture. Sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said, “There are great water facilities holding stagnant water and garnering mosquitos that can be repurposed for agriculture. The bill is simple, to turn over the water catchments to the Department of Agriculture.”

On the contrary, the DOA Commissioner Positive Nelson noted that because of the necessary requirements to maintain water catchments it is best to give oversight to the V.I. Water and Power Authority and the V.I. Fire Department; not DOA. Furthermore, Commissioner Nelson stated that transferring the responsibility to DOA without addressing the physical condition of the facilities is not conducive. Presently, each water catchment requires maintenance, cleaning, the protection, testing, portability, and onsite storage. Moreover, the Department of Health (DOH) Assistant Commissioner Nicole Syms recommended that DOH maintains authority with rights of usage to DOA especially if water receptacles are placed by nearby farms. “It would take a tremendous effort to restore water catchments in its present state. Financially, this is not feasible. It is more cost-effective to use portable water,” Sen. Kurt Vialet said. However, Sen. DeGazon indicated that portable water should be tested prior to use. “I do not support using portable water because when I watered my seeds with it, they died. It is important to conduct a study as to why plants watered with cistern water survive vs. the adverse effect of portable water.”

Separately, Commissioner Nelson shared an update on the operations of DOA. To date, DOA expended 24% or $43,442 out of $4,596,880 appropriated for the FY 2020 budget. DOA is recruiting to fill vacancies to include a Heavy Equipment Mechanic and a Forest Stewardship Coordinator. As of February 14th, Abattoirs are on a 120-day voluntary suspension. In response to Sen. Alicia Barnes’s inquiry regarding the reason for the suspension, Commissioner Nelson noted that the Abattoirs received seventeen Non-Regulatory Citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DOA is currently addressing challenges.

Lastly, senators voted favorably for Bill No. 33-0249- An Act amending Title 7, Chapter I, Subchapter II, section 9 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new subsection (i) mandating the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Tourism to host an Agricultural symposium known as the V.I Agricultural Caribbean Symposium, alternately and annually on the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. The bill was proposed by Sen. Javan James, Sr. and Sen. DeGazon. “We are now going to take agriculture to another level which is to host a conference where people from all over the world can learn about agriculture in the Territory. The goal is to turn this into an agri-business conference and showcase local cuisine and produce,” Sen. DeGazon said.

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