New “War” Targets Agriculture’s hold on Water Resources

I read an interesting article in the Washington Post recently about a new kind of “water war” being fought out west.

Feb 1st, 2006

I read an interesting article in the Washington Post recently about a new kind of “water war” being fought out west. On one side we have an uneasy alliance between environmentalists and big cities. On the other side are the farmers and ranchers that put food on the tables of America.

Part of my youth was spent on a small dairy farm in the Ozarks, so I think of farmers and ranchers as country folk who earn every thin dime they make through hard work and sweat. But out west - in Montana, Arizona, California - they are being portrayed as water barons that use their political clout to control the region’s scarce water resources.

In the arid West a combination of urban growth and recent drought has resulted in the demand for water outstripping supply. Meanwhile, under longstanding federal and state policies, agriculture controls a large portion of the available water and often receives that water at reduced prices.

As an example, California’s Central Valley farmers get their water from the federal government at below-market prices, a subsidy that amounts to $416 million a year, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. And unlike cities getting the same water, farmers are paying back the cost of the region’s giant irrigation system without interest.

In the past, when the competition for water was less intense, Western cities often cut deals with agricultural interests to build massive projects to supply water to both. But rapidly growing municipal needs -- the West is now home to nine of the 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas -- mean urban areas now are in direct competition with ranchers and farmers.

The uneasy alliance between cities and environmentalists is only a matter of convenience. In this one, brief moment in time their interests are aligned: Breaking agriculture’s hold on water resources. While cities want a larger share of the water pie to fuel growth, the environmentalists want the water left in the environment to fill stream beds and maintain healthy habitats.

The key to many of the water scarcity issues in the West and elsewhere is water conservation - using what we have wisely -- both in the cities and on the farms. It’s hard for me to say which is the bigger waster of water. I think most of us in the municipal water industry know that water conservation is only in its infancy when it comes to cities. For the farming industry, it might still be in the delivery room.

I would have trouble picking a side in this water war - I think of myself as an environmentalist farmer who happens to live in a city. But my wallet and my heart place me on the side of the farmers.

I realize many of the farm and ranch “water barons” of today don’t wear overalls and ride a tractor. They are more likely agri-business executives, and the guy on the tractor is an underpaid employee they’ve never met. But I also think that water is the life-blood of farming -- and every time a farmer receives a subsidy on the cost of his water I reap the benefits when I visit the grocery store.

James Laughlin, Editor

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