Leaky Water Law

The 1902 federal reclamation law always enjoyed a very special interpretation as applied to the Central Valley Project, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for farmers in California's Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. That elite status continues today under a new Bureau of Reclamation regulation that clearly undercuts the spirit of the Reclamation Reform Act passed by Congress in 1982.

The ruling makes it possible for large corporate and family farms to continue to receive federal project water at subsidized rates at the same time that California cities and suburban areas are scratching around for new supplies of water at many times the cost. The ruling is, as Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) protests, an outrage. Unless it can be overturned quickly in the courts, Congress will have to fight this fight all over again.

The concept of the Reclamation Act of 1902 goes back to John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran who explored the Colorado River and dreamed of settling the West with small farms and ranches. It would encourage homesteaders in places like Wyoming and Colorado to settle on barren lands and make them bloom with the assistance of federally developed irrigation water. Consistent with the small-farm goal, irrigators were limited to the amount of water needed to irrigate 160 acres, or 320 acres for a couple.

California's great Central Valley was something else. With the invention of the centrifugal pump shortly after World War I, giant California farms rapidly built a massive agricultural empire. By the 1920s, California had surpassed Iowa as the nation's richest farm state. In the 1930s, however, the farmers had dangerously depleted the unregulated groundwater supply, and they turned to the state for rescue. The Central Valley Project was launched as a state enterprise, but was taken over by Washington when the state found that it could not market its bonds.

With the first deliveries of the federal water came the first wholesale winking by the Bureau of Reclamation at the 160-acre limit, specifically at the fact that the water was being applied to vast acreages of leased land as well the basic farm. With a rare exception, the large farmers never were forced to dispose of their excess lands, as the law required if they wanted to continue receiving the cheap federal water. Finally, in 1982, Congress raised the limit to 960 acres. By this spring farmers had to decide if they wanted to keep the water at the old, cheapest rate and limit its use to 160 acres, or receive it on up to 960 acres by sharing in the payment of the Central Valley Project's operation and maintenance costs. The second option would raise the price of the water considerably, perhaps threefold, but still not up to the government's full cost of delivering it. Water used on lands in excess of 960 acres would bear the full cost.

The Bureau of Reclamation said last week, however, that farmers could continue to receive subsidized federal water beyond the 960-acre limit by operating a consortium of units under a "farm management arrangement." The major requirement is that each farm be under separate legal ownership. It is, essentially, the old leasing arrangement under a different name.

Critics of the reform claim that it was being used as a blackjack to break the old water contracts, which often were written for 40-year periods. Reformers argued that it was meant to bring the program back within the meaning of the original law, raising the limit to 960 acres to recognize reality without penalizing the true family farm. As now interpreted by the bureau, it may not do either.

Federal reclamation projects never were meant to assist giant existing farms, as they did in California. Nor did the Central Valley Project solve the groundwater problem in the San Joaquin Valley, since farmers continued to pump and bring even more land into production. Perpetuation of this program under the bureau's new regulations continues to subsidize a privileged group of farmers and aggravates the problem of allocating California's limited water resources in a rational fashion. It is time to stop winking at the law.

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