ProPublica on the Colorado River Basin solution space

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:


Arizona annual cotton acres


  1. What actions by citizens or their representatives in State houses or Congress would effectively redirect the large subsidies to more effective use? What forces keep the subsidies in place now, not only the traditional forces but also those fighting for the water?

  2. John: The Colorado is getting plenty of attention, which is good. The elevated response of water managers to the water management crisis there is very gratifying. I cannot say the same for Rio Grande water managers, who face the same dilemma. Para ejemplo: tons of subsidized cotton in the Mesilla and El Paso Valleys. Yet NM and TX are locked in a struggle over an over-allocated river. Dialogue (and public concern) toward solutions is diverted to the fight.

    Anyway: thanks for the frequent posts. I read them avidly and dive into the links you provide. Bravo.

  3. Eric: Next time a Farm Bill is being marked up (~2018), someone must lobby the ag lobby to surrender the cotton subsidy. They don’t want to do it and Congress doesn’t want to buck this powerful and well-organized interest

  4. Economics are once again the devil in the details. Cotton is kind of a speciality crop. Most of the equipment used to produce cotton is only good for cotton. To diversify on even half the acreage to wheat, corn, or alfalfa would require a substantial financial investment for different equipment. With today’s markets it would take years to recoup one’s investment.

  5. Greg – One of the points Lustgarten and Sadasivam make in the article (and that Lustgarten made in a conversation with me today on Twitter) is that the transition out of cotton is well underway, so the sort of investment you’re talking about is already happening. I think their point is that it is either helped or hindered by the market-distorting financial incentives and disincentives of the farm bill.

  6. Full details of USDA subsidies to individuals are public information and conveniently obtained for AZ, CA and NM at a searchable database maintained for many years by the Environmental Working Group. For example, Arizona has 15,637 farms of which only 1,140 or 7.3% are on the govt dole.

    If the flow of handouts ceased, CRP water savings could be estimated from the Pacific Institute database of acreage and water use of each crop by county, as could the number of solar panels purchasable each year with the taxpayer money spared. Thermoelectric generation uses huge amounts of cooling water, eg all that steam at the Navajo Generating Station, so closing a few unneeded coal plants could be added to the freed-up water.

    $1.57 billion in subsidies 1995-2012.
    $1.25 billion in commodity subsidies.
    $119 million in crop insurance subsidies.
    $103 million in conservation subsidies.
    $94 million in disaster subsidies.

    The link below goes to a list of subsidies received 1995-2012 by the Coolidge AZ family farmers mentioned in the article.

    The USDA subsidy information listed for Greg Wuertz has to be multiplied by his % ownership in three subsidized farms. Note wheat provides the next biggest paycheck after cotton. I don’t believe either crop has a market at the cost of production.

    Sundance Farms Llp Pinal County, Arizona 17.3 % $169,085
    Mckinney Farming Co Pinal County, Arizona 25.0 % $495,931
    Wuertz Farming Ltd Co LLC Pinal County, Arizona 25.0 % $7,435

    Sundance Farms Llp received payments totaling $977,371 from 1995 through 2012
    Cotton Subsidies** $909,318
    Wheat Subsidies** $40,941
    Barley Subsidies** $13,912
    Sorghum Subsidies** $4,818
    Corn Subsidies** $106

    Mckinney Farming Co received payments totaling $1,983,725 from 1995 through 2012
    Cotton Subsidies** $1,912,271
    Wheat Subsidies** $49,028
    Barley Subsidies** $12,094
    Sorghum Subsidies** $9,028
    Corn Subsidies** $98

    Wuertz Farming Ltd Co LLC received payments totaling $29,700 from 1995 through 2012
    Cotton Subsidies** $26,048
    Wheat Subsidies** $2,568
    Barley Subsidies** $1,064
    Sorghum Subsidies** $20

    His brother (?) David A Wuertz also of Coolidge received $1,062,287 in government subsidies over that period for a separate farm.

    Cotton Subsidies $1,006,489
    Wheat Subsidies $30,464
    Barley Subsidies $12,613
    Sorghum Subsidies $205

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