This week I listened to a story from ProPublica about an investigative series on the Colorado River. Western states are seeing one of the worst droughts in decades. This is not news. But, this investigation goes into an incredible analysis of the history of the Colorado River and gives depth and explanation to some of the issues surrounding our latest water crisis. Of particular interest to me is the exploration of crop production in the West and the US Farm Bill.
The Colorado River, which feeds 7 western states is in it's 15th year of drought. So, one might ask, why are we growing water intensive crops in states where there is no water? Well of course, because the government is paying for it. In 2013 Arizona planted more than 161,000 acres of cotton.
"Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid."
But wait, isn't the government broke? Why would we pay to increase the drought and support a crop that no longer is profitable in the United States? Oh right, the Farm Bill...
"The U.S. Farm Bill wraps everything from food stamps to sugar imports into one 357-page, nearly $1 trillion law. No American law has more influence on what, where and when farmers decide to plant. And by extension, no federal policy has a greater ability to directly influence how water resources are consumed in the American West."
As a farmer it feels odd to be opposed to the Farm Bill. After all, along with every other incentive, the bill does include funding for organic practices. Our farm is getting a new (much needed) well this spring because of this bill. But even so, I can't stomach it. I would give the well money back if that would help fix the law. This bill is bad public policy. It is an example of an inefficient bureaucratic system that has become so complicated and fat over the years that the only way to fix it would be to throw the whole thing out and start over. But we can't do that. Why not? Politics. The United States Senate is a tricky place. Every state, including lightly populated farming states, has two Senators. It takes 60 Senators to pass any bill (be it health care, the budget, or anything in between). My bet is that over the years many votes have been bought and sold through the farm bill.
Maybe I'm being cynical and over simplifying the issue. I don't know. Maybe we should call Senator Warner and see what he thinks.