Farmers Fill Up at Federal Water Trough

Times Staff Writer

This is a valley that wears its mistrust of the federal government proudly.

From Bakersfield to Modesto, handmade signs planted firmly in San Joaquin Valley farm soil call for the death of activist federal judges. Bumper stickers shout the primacy of private property and gun rights.

But the payments that flow into the valley from Washington, D.C. -- those are a different matter. Nearly a third of the population in this farm belt relies on some form of federal public assistance, figures show, one of the highest such dependency rates in the nation.


And then there is the federal support that few locals like to talk about: the water and crop subsidies that keep the wealthiest citizens in tall cotton.

Each year, a score of big farmers on Fresno County’s west side receive millions of dollars in price supports and subsidized water for their cotton, nut, tomato, garlic, onion and grape crops.

A report by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit trying to reform the agricultural subsidy system, shows that farms in Huron and the surrounding area received, by the most conservative measure, $24 million in water subsidies in 2002. That figure does not include millions more in cotton and wheat subsidies.

The report comes as the federal Bureau of Reclamation is renegotiating its long-term contracts with agricultural users in the Central Valley Project, the nation’s largest irrigation system.

The negotiations have raised concerns among environmentalists, who say that the U.S. government is about to give farmers another sweetheart deal. Farmers respond that the inexpensive water allows them to compete in a global market flooded with cheap foreign crops.

The report, released today, measures the water use of each farm tied to the Central Valley Project. The biggest farming operation in Fresno County, run by the Woolf family, used 29,000 acre-feet of water to irrigate 19,000 acres of crops. That is enough water to fill more than 37,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, the report said.

“The figures show very clearly that despite the fact that the CVP was conceived as a way to support small family farmers, that subsidy today is overwhelmingly going to the largest and richest farms,” said Bill Walker, one of the report’s authors.

The amount of water that each farm draws from the project is a matter of public record. The watchdog group, which each year assesses crop subsidies to farms nationwide, calculated the value of the water by using three different formulas. Farmers who saw only excerpts of the report didn’t take issue with the most conservative formula, which yielded the $24-million-a-year subsidy figure.

But one formula, which based the water’s value on what it would cost to replace it in today’s market, was criticized by farmers. That formula calculated the total yearly subsidy to farmers on Fresno County’s west side at $110 million. For farmers throughout the Central Valley Project, the figure was $416 million.

“This is a supposed analysis that is based upon false assumptions and some hypothetical fair market value for water that doesn’t exist,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, the biggest irrigator in the California Valley Project. “ A lot of our farmers are using drip irrigation. They are among the most efficient water users in the world, right up there with farmers in Israel.”

The debate is hardly new. Over the decades, as the San Joaquin Valley has grown into the most productive agricultural region in the world, politicians and bureaucrats have grappled with the issues of water and the size of farms. The old Jeffersonian ideal held that cheap water was a means to develop the West with small and mid-sized farms. The Central Valley Project, which began construction in the mid-1930s, grew out of that ideal.

But the economies of scale -- efficient big farms swallowing up inefficient small ones -- have dictated otherwise. Reclamation law no longer prohibits cheap federal water from going to farms larger than 160 acres. Farms up to 960 acres can qualify.

Even so, prominent farm families in western Fresno County have found a way to obtain subsidies for even larger holdings. By dividing their 10,000- and 15,000-acre operations into 960-acre chunks, many growers in the Westlands district have managed to receive a lion’s share of the project’s water -- more than 25% in many years, the report said.

The Britz family, for example, has divided its Westlands holdings into nine separate entities, each one receiving crop and water subsidies. In 2002 and 2003, the Britzes received more than $1 million in crop supports and nearly $300,000 in water subsidies. The Britzes could not be reached for comment.

The Woolf family has weaned itself from crop subsidies by replacing cotton and wheat -- crops that receive price supports -- with vegetables, almonds, pistachios and grapes. But the family’s water subsidy in 2002 was at least $710,000, the report found.

Stuart Woolf, president and chief executive of Woolf Enterprises, said his family has spent millions of dollars to convert from flood irrigation to more efficient drip irrigation.

“This study gives the impression that we’re big water wasters,” Woolf said. “The reality is, we don’t have enough water to use, and we have to manage every drop.”

“The Environmental Working Group is raising some good questions, but I would encourage them to come visit our farm and learn a little bit about the careful way we manage water resources. We’re good stewards.”