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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Western Water Woes

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Ruth Page takes a swipe at Western water subsidies and the farmers who prosper from them.


CURWOOD: Water is another natural resource that gets a big subsidy from governments in the American Southwest. And to commentator Ruth Page, it doesn't seem like a good deal for taxpayers.

PAGE: Flying over the American Southwest can give a traveler indigestion. Look down. There are lawns of super-thirsty eastern-style grasses, water-gulping golf courses, huge residential developments with swimming pools evaporating under a merciless sun. Worst of all, vast acreages planted to rows and rows of thirsty cotton plants. And this is desert. Native plants and animals in desert areas have adapted to the drought conditions. Many people who move there try to make the environment adapt to them. Some emigrate from eastern states accustomed to 35 to 45 inches of rain a year. They want a lawn and garden like the ones back home. For them, and to support drought area farming, the immense Colorado River has been sucked so dry it no longer reaches the sea. The barest trickle crosses the border into Mexico, though that country was at one time promised a share of the water.

Some southwesterners conscientiously zero scape. That is, they raise only drought-resistant plants. A few just pave the yard and paint it green, or put a few cactuses amid a spread of pebbles. Still, too many folks plant lawns and flowers as thirsty as dry sponges. You and I help pay for this water in the desert. It's heavily subsidized by Federal taxes. There are legal limits to how much tax subsidized irrigation water a farm can use, but according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, many farmers evade the law. Farmers working up to 960 acres of land get crop subsidies. So, the bigger owners simply subdivide and parcel their land out to spouses and offspring to escape the subsidy restriction. One 13,000-acre farm thus subdivided got water subsidies of $4.8 million from 1986 to 1989. They were able to save a million and a half dollars on the deal in those three years. You know what they grow on that land? Cotton. A crop the country has in such huge quantity, the government has to subsidize that, too, to keep the price up.

Congress estimates the cost of southwestern farmers using subsidized water to grow subsidized crops is about a billion and a half dollars every year. People wanting to move to the southwest may soon find there's land available, but no water. Los Angeles residents and businesses pay $545 per acre foot for their water, enough for a family of 4 for 20 months. San Franciscans pay $300. Yet some California farmers pay only $2 an acre foot. The farmers say they mightn't be able to farm if they had to pay the full cost of the water. Right! Maybe they're getting the message.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page lives in Burlington, Vermont, and comes to us from Vermont public radio.



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