Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

House to Debate California Water New Legislation, Prompted by Drought, Would Curb Water Subsidies and Mandate Conservation. `AN ARID REGION OF THE WORLD' Series: CUT IT OUT! A Feature for NIE Week. Part 4 of a 5-Part Series. Third of Four Articles Appearing Today

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

House to Debate California Water New Legislation, Prompted by Drought, Would Curb Water Subsidies and Mandate Conservation. `AN ARID REGION OF THE WORLD' Series: CUT IT OUT! A Feature for NIE Week. Part 4 of a 5-Part Series. Third of Four Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

THE red-brown walls of dirt that should be submerged by water at Shasta Lake are testimony to California's fifth year of drought. This reservoir - the starting point of a vast system of canals and dams making up the massive federal Central Valley Project (CVP) - is down to 35 percent of capacity.

But Shasta symbolizes something else these days: the political fight over subsidized water flowing south to the state's $18 billion food and fiber industry.

For years, critics have said the laws under which such projects were built and managed have been ignored or manipulated to the benefit of corporate agriculture over the family farmers for whom they were intended.

The Reclamation Act of 1902, which set the stage for Central Valley construction to begin in the late 1930s and contracts to be let in the early 1950s, placed a 160-acre limit on farms receiving federal water. In 1982, that was raised to 960 acres under legislation reformers thought had closed loopholes like the lack of limits on leasing.

But according to the US General Accounting Office, many big companies created "paper farms" (sometimes held in "trust" by hundreds of company employees) to get around the restriction. And no-interest repayment rates set decades ago keep the cost of water well below the market price and actual cost to run CVP.

CVP water users pay as little as $3.50 an acre-foot of water (326,000 gallons), far less than the $22 to $47 paid to the State Water Project or the $230 an acre-foot paid by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for domestic water.

In some cases, this has encouraged farmers to grow crops that are in surplus, resulting in federal price-support payments as well as the water subsidy. And while some have implemented conservation measures, the inefficient use of cheap water has had adverse environmental effects.

Among the results, says Environmental Defense Fund attorney Thomas Graff, are badly depleted freshwater flows to the San Francisco Bay estuary and central valley wetlands and damage to fisheries in the Sacramento, Trinity, and American rivers.

The issue is to be taken up in Congress today with hearings before the House water and power resources subcommittee, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who has crusaded on the issue for over a decade. It continues later in the month with hearings in Los Angeles led by Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate water and power subcommittee.

Both lawmakers have written legislation that would curb water subsidies, mandate conservation, and force federal agencies to take into account environmental and economic matters when considering new projects or water-users' contract renewals.

Heavy-duty lobbying, campaign contributions, and pork-barrel tradeoffs with lawmakers outside the region have played a role in shaping federal water policy over the years. Arguing against acreage limitations 30 years ago, one California lawmaker said, "At times we have to rise above principle."

California Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D) calls the result "stupid, even venal . …

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