From: Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press
Published December 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Study Shows Federal Water Subsidies Go to Largest Farms

FRESNO, Calif. — A handful of large farms get most of the water and subsidy dollars delivered by the country's biggest federal water supply project, according to a study by a national environmental organization.


The Central Valley Project, authorized in 1936 to support family farms, now funnels up to $416 million of subsidized water to agricultural giants in California's Central Valley, according to a study released earlier this month by the Environmental Working Group.


Specifically, the report indicated that the top 10 percent of agricultural water users were getting 67 percent of the water.


"The system is broken," said Environmental Working Group spokesman Bill Walker.


Fixing it is more important than ever, Walker added, since the Central Valley's water districts are currently going through contract negotiations that could lock in millions of acre feet of water deliveries for decades to come -- a time when the state's booming population is expected to increase demand on the limited resource.


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Representatives of Westlands Water District, the biggest beneficiary of the federal water project, called the findings "irresponsible."


The rate charged for water from the CVP is determined by law, they said, and the only break farmers get is on repayment of the $3.6 billion in public money used to build the project, an amount that is being returned over decades with no accruing interest, water contractors said.


The report said that by 2002, water users had only paid back 11 percent of the initial building cost, in part because they've been locked into decades-long contracts that set their water rates lower than what was necessary to pay back the construction costs.


Farmers argue they pay that debt back to the public by generating jobs and revenue in a region plagued by unemployment, and producing the fresh fruits and vegetables that feed the nation.


Water "is a resource that should be available to a variety of users -- and there isn't any question the public benefit outweighs the cost in this situation," said Thomas Birmingham, general manger for Westlands Water District.


Source: Associated Press


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