Water conservation problem not solved

Editorial

Paying farmers not to farm isn’t a new or shocking concept inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture: in fact, today it’s a widely accepted practice, used to keep the price of commodities pumped up, protect “wetlands” and advance other conservation goals, some of which have a dubious public benefit.

But how about paying farmers in the arid Southwest not to farm, to save precious water?

Now there’s an idea with a big future, if we assume that almost every “experimental” program the federal government undertakes evolves into something bigger over time. If such programs are really lucky, they grow up to be “entitlements.”
According to a recent report in The Arizona Republic, “The Colorado River will undergo a series of experiments in the coming year aimed at squeezing from it even more water to meet the growing demands of Arizona and six other Western states.” Among those experiments is “a pilot program that pays farmers not to plant crops.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will “contribute money to a program started by a California water agency that pays farmers near Blythe, Calif., to leave land fallow,” reports The Republic.

It’s just a little program now, but one with the potential to grow large.

“Some of these things will be a big part of the future,” said Larry Dozier, an official with the Central Arizona Project, an aqueduct system that carries Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. “What we’re seeing this year are just start-up programs, but if you don’t start, you won’t finish.”

But how “finishing” is defined, and how much it will cost taxpayers, is a question that should be asked early and often, before the program grows big enough to develop a constituency, at which point it will become impossible to eliminate.

Conserving water is certainly a worthy goal, but this seems a silly approach. Why not begin by simply charging farmers more for now-heavily subsidized water, in recognition of its scarcity and the fact that reclamation projects cost money? That would also encourage efficiency and conservation and could put the marginal operators out of business.

If we’re going to go down this road, maybe we should simply buy out farmers and permanently retire the acreage. Eventually, we could retire vast acreages in the arid West, which farmers wouldn’t have planted to begin with, were they not tempted to do so by subsidized federal water projects. This illustrates how one federal misstep leads to a chain of them, each absurdity used to justify the next.

We can’t imagine it will be too hard finding farmers willing to earn a buck doing nothing. The Department of Agriculture has thousands of them enrolled in its land-idling programs. Then again, with so many subsidies available, via so many federal agriculture programs, and with the possibility of cashing in on crop disaster payments only one hail storm away, some hard cases may just keep on farming.

We can’t really blame farmers for taking the money; an “entitlement mentality” can be as easy to nurture in the farm belt as in the rust belt.

The eagerness of the federal government to throw money at people, and problems, can have a corrupting influence on otherwise honest people — which is why America might these days better be called the “land of the freeloader and the home of the knave.”