As drought forces families in the West to shorten their showers and let their lawns turn brown, two Depression-era government programs have been paying some of the nation's biggest farms hundreds of millions of dollars to grow water-thirsty crops in what was once desert.
Records obtained by The Associated Press show that the federal government handed out more than $687 million in subsidies over the past two years to hundreds of farmers in California and Arizona, the most seriously drought-stricken states in the West.
One program pays farmers for planting water-needy crops such as cotton and rice, which are largely grown by flooding the fields. The other provides cut-rate water for irrigation.
Farmers and government officials strongly defend the double-dip subsidies, saying they produce an abundance of food and jobs.
But now, with the West booming in population and the region gripped by both recession and a dry spell, environmentalists, city dwellers and members of Congress are demanding the government end or scale back this decades-old practice that essentially rewards farms for using water, not conserving it.
"With our weather patterns, with climate change, and our population growth, we've got to look at how we use every drop," said Rep. George Miller, a Democrat who represents part of the San Francisco Bay area. "We need to take a serious look at policies that encourage economically inefficient and unsustainable uses of our limited clean water supplies."
Since the drought began in 2007, the government has steered about $79 million in water subsidies to California farms, according to an AP analysis of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation records. California cotton and rice farmers received $439 million more in subsidies doled out for commodity crops, according to an AP examination of U.S. Department of Agriculture data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Arizona farmers have received nearly $170 million since 2007 in water and crop subsidies, mostly for cotton, records show.
Major water cutbacks
Exactly how much California farmers will get in subsidies in 2009 is unclear, but it could be significantly less. Facing a third dry year and record-low reservoirs, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages many dams and reservoirs in the West, announced major water cutbacks last month in California. For now, hundreds of farmers will get no irrigation water from the federal government, although they could get some later this year.
The cutbacks are leading some farmers to switch to less-thirsty crops or leave their fields fallow.
East of the Rockies, other rice- and cotton-growing states, such as Texas and Louisiana, get federal crop subsidies, too, but not cheap water through the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates only in the West. Also, the tug-of-war over water between the cities and the countryside is far more intense in booming California and Arizona.
President Barack Obama recently called some of the nation's crop programs unnecessary, and proposed cutting or capping them.
Over the past quarter-century, Congress has considered eight bills that would bar the double dipping practiced by California and Arizona. And federal budget analysts in 2006 questioned whether the government should be sending farms so much cheap water when endangered species and city dwellers need it, too.
Thirsty crops encouraged
Each year, agriculture takes up to 80 percent of federally controlled surface water in California — and the price many farmers have been paying is less than half what some cities do.
USDA officials acknowledge that even during the drought, the system has encouraged farmers to sow cotton and rice, which require more water per acre than other major commodities grown in California and Arizona. For example, a California farmer uses a quarter more water to grow an acre of cotton than wheat. Rice, primarily grown in clay flood plains near Sacramento, needs almost twice as much water as wheat.
The USDA's chief economist, Larry Salathe, said a surging population and dry weather — not the agency's programs — are causing water shortages.
"We're concerned about the availability of water in the West, but we were growing rice and cotton in California long before this problem started," Salathe said. "We're trying to use our resources to produce the most food we can, and that by itself is not a bad objective."
Agriculture is a $36.6 billion industry in California, and the state's farms create thousands of rural jobs, contribute hundreds of millions in local taxes and grow most of the fruits and vegetables eaten in this country.
Jim Hansen, a 69-year-old cotton grower in California's Central Valley, said his family business would crumble if the government took away low-cost water and the nearly $1.7 million in crop payments he received in 2007 and 2008.
"Lots of farmers are already saying that these government programs aren't enough to make them stay in the business," said Hansen, co-owner of Hansen Ranches, the state's fourth-largest recipient of crop subsidies. "I just don't think that taking the No. 1 ag state and drying it up is a good long-term answer for our country. I mean, people need food."
Recession intensifies debate
But as the recession intensifies and mandatory water rationing hits some cities in the Bay Area and outside Sacramento, the issue is taking on new urgency.
"If farmers' business model depends on getting taxpayer-subsidized water to grow taxpayer-subsidized crops and they still say they have a hard time making it, there's something wrong," said Bill Walker, campaign director for the Oakland-based environmental law firm Earthjustice. "Why do we let them buy water so cheap?"
This summer, federal supplies are expected to run so low that officials in suburbs outside Sacramento said they may need to lower the pressure coming out of residents' taps for the second year in a row.
"We still haven't gotten into a situation where we're fighting directly with agricultural users over the same bucket of water, but I think we're going to see that in the future," said John Coppola, principal engineer for the Sacramento Water Agency.
Daniel Errotabere, a third-generation farmer in Fresno County, has been forced to leave fields fallow and lay off workers, although he has installed efficient drip irrigation and is switching from cotton to pistachios and almonds. If farmers are stripped of their safety net, Errotabere warned, consumers will soon be paying more for food.
"Everyone is going to have to give something up," he said.