Abrahm Lustgarten and Naveena Sadasivam at ProPublica have launched their eagerly awaited western water series with a great piece today on the impact of agricultural subsidies on water use in the Colorado River Basin. They focus on cotton, which uses a lot of water and, they argue, only gets grown because of the structure of federal subsidies:
Wuertz could plant any number of crops that use far less water than cotton and fill grocery store shelves from Maine to Minnesota. But along with hundreds of farmers across Arizona, he has kept planting his fields with cotton instead. He says he has done it out of habit, pride, practicality, and even a self-deprecating sense that he wouldn’t be good at anything else. But in truth, one reason outweighs all the others: The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives to do it that he can’t afford not to.
I’m less disturbed than Lustgarten and Sadasivam by the specifics of the cotton subsidy in Arizona (some data that I’ll slip in below suggests why), but their underlying argument is incredibly important, because federal agricultural policy’s weaknesses here nevertheless provide the sort of opportunity that, properly managed, could allow us to wriggle out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves:
According to research by the Pacific Institute, simply irrigating alfalfa fields less frequently, stressing the plant and slightly reducing its yield, could decrease the amount of water needed across the seven Colorado River basin states by roughly 10 percent. If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.
There’s little financial reason not to do this. The government is willing to consider spending huge amounts to get new water supplies, including building billion-dollar desalinization plants to purify ocean water. It would cost a tiny fraction of that to pay farmers in Arizona and California more to grow wheat rather than cotton, and for the cost of converting their fields. The billions of dollars of existing subsidies already allocated by Congress could be redirected to support those goals, or spent, as the Congressional Budget Office suggested, on equipment and infrastructure that helps farmers use less water.
This, as a journalist/water nerd, is the particular strength of the piece (and makes me eager to read the rest) – not just identifying the problem, but also noting where the solutions might be found.
Now to the Arizona data. Despite the subsidies, Arizona cotton farming has steadily declined, with this year’s 115,000 planted acres the lowest going back at least through the 1950s: