26 Aug 2008

800 Pound Gorilla 2

In yesterday's post, JWT argues that higher prices on agricultural water would end the water shortage. (I agree, but we offer different suggestions.) Today, JWT broadens the view to include the collateral damage of current water use patterns in California (and other places that practice subsidized, irrigated agriculture):

"There are four more very, very serious problems that flow directly from California’s huge agribusinesses wasteful use of water:
  1. There are estimates that fully 20% of all the electricity used in California is used to move water from where it is to where it is currently wanted. A significant amount of this electricity is produced by highly subsidized (that means our tax money) hydro-electric power producing dams. Think Hoover Dam for instance, but there are hundreds more. As more and more water is diverted from dammed up rivers, less and less electricity is generated.


    The California Aqueduct, which you have seen if you have ever driven from Los Angeles to Sacramento, begins at the Oroville Dam. It then runs 444 miles to the South, and up hill all the way since the Southern end of the San Joaquin Valley is higher than the North end. Then it arrives at the Tehachapi Mountains and it has to be lifted 3,400 feet straight up to get over the mountains. This happens in five stages. The fifth stage lifts all that water higher than the Empire State Building on top of the Eiffel Tower. Some of this energy is recovered on the downhill side, but not much.

  2. When fields are watered by flooding and by rolling sprinklers, the overwhelming majority of the water evaporates into the sky. But the water that is left behind contains lots of minerals, and particularly damaging is salt. When the irrigation water is recycled, the salts continue to build up as the “unsalted water” goes into the sky. Eventually, the salts in the soil build up to the point where the land is useless for growing anything and will remain that way forever. As you drive through the San Joaquin Valley even now you can see places where the land looks as if it were covered with white snow. Sorry, that is salt and that land is out of production forever. Continued wasteful irrigation simply speeds up this process.

  3. Because huge agri-business can use heavily subsidized water to grow cotton in a desert, and because the same huge agri-businesses receive huge subsidies directly from the U.S. Congress, they can set the world price for cotton so low that small farmers in Africa, who have successfully grown cotton for generations, can no longer compete and have given up growing cotton. However, without cotton, those African small farmers might starve to death and we cannot let people starve to death so we send the unemployed African cotton farmers direct relief payments. In November, 2005, the U.S. government issued this press release; “The Millennium Challenge Corporation offers the most significant opportunity for many key countries to address long-term development obstacles in cotton. It will result in hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into the region in grant form in a way set by recipient countries.” And the grants for the first three countries total $737 million.

    And when we are talking about U. S. farm subsidy payments, we are not talking about lunch money!! Data from 2005 is the latest available and it shows that California cotton farms received $649,415,000. Arguably the state’s biggest cotton farmer, headquartered in Corcoran, California, received payments of $4,503,023 from 2003-2005. In addition, nine individuals associated with that business received an additional $4,286,864 during the same period. One California cotton farmer received $8,789,887 in payments from the U. S. government all the while using cheap water to grow the cotton. And that is just one example. And always remember that these are YOUR tax dollars we are talking about here.

  4. The California salmon industry has collapsed because so many rivers have been dammed that many salmon cannot reach their spawning grounds. Add to that, the fact much smaller amounts of water are being released in the few remaining rivers. Here is just one example; in 2007 only 90,000 adult salmon returned to the Central Valley to spawn. In 2002, just five years ago, the number was 804,000."
Did you notice the irony of $737 million in aid to African cotton farmers harmed by our $649 million in subsidies to California cotton farmers. We are paying people to dig holes and then paying other people to fill them in!

Bottom Line: As we have seen with the ethanol debacle, bad policies can lead to tragic consequences in many places, domestic and foreign. Time to replace bad policies with sustainable ones, and ending water agricultural subsidies is one of those “no regrets” actions we can take here and now.


  1. ah, ag subsidies! I have just returned from a drive that crossed Nebraska and parts of Illinois into southern Michigan. Corn and soybeans for three days...
    A question, are the soybeans subsidized as much as corn?

  2. Utterly wrong: "When fields are watered by flooding and by rolling sprinklers, the overwhelming majority of the water evaporates into the sky." Evaporative losses are maybe 10%, depending on wind and other factors. Salt balance is something that must be managed in all forms of agriculture, irrigated or not. Salts are managed by leaching and displacement of sodium by calcium, as any freshman with the most rudimentary knowledge of soils and irrigation (obviously not JWT) can tell you.
    Mostly wrong: "they can set the world price for cotton so low that small farmers in Africa, who have successfully grown cotton for generations" Farmers can no more set the price for world commodities than they can set the sun and moon. "small farmers in Africa, who have successfully grown cotton for generations, can no longer compete" The farmers in Africa are hobbled far more by their poor infrastructure, corrupt socialist governments, and lack of education than they are by today's low cotton prices. Their yields are so poor it would take a three or four fold increase in cotton prices to make them competitive.
    Our system of agricultural price supports is a disgrace, to be sure. Congress designed the handouts to benefit absentee land owners, lenders, and farmers in Texas and the South. California farmers mostly grow unsubsidized Pima cotton, and damn little of that.
    Badly outdated: "The California salmon industry has collapsed because so many rivers have been dammed that many salmon cannot reach their spawning grounds" Would that it were so simple, as this is what people believed in the 40's and 50' when they built fish ladders. It is the out-migration and freshwater habitat of the smolts, not the problems adults face in reaching spawning grounds, that is the much bigger problem. Irrigation has caused problems, as have invasive species, pollution, and changes in land use. I suggest a one day course in salmonid biology, (available at Davis)for JWT.

  3. @FC -- soy is subsidized as a "program crop" but how much is difficult to say -- i.e., you need to include cross-substitution effects as well as direct payments.

    @Philip -- You need to cite sources on evap and salt -- otherwise you and JWT are just talking opinion.

    Re: Africa -- read the US/Brazil case on cotton. US programs were was found to be responsible for lowering world cotton prices. Although W African farmers DO have bad gov't etc, the US has contributed to their problems.

    As of 2006, Pima and Upland were tied for acreage. Got updated numbers?

    IMO, Salmon populations have crashed due to habitat destruction and over-fishing.

  4. For salinity information, try "Salinity in Irrigation and Water" Dan Yaron (ed.) or the Western Fertilizer Handbook, or numerous articles published in peer reviewed journals like Soil Science. For irrigation efficiencies, try "Forages, the Science of Grassland Agriculture" (Barnes, et. al.) and many other sources.
    The WTO was right in stating that the US handouts depress cotton prices; what some don't realize is that they damage California growers in this regard even more than they do the ones in Africa. I agree: the rich countries' subsidies just give cover for the miserable crooks who are in charge of some of the the African countries.
    USDA (usually quite reliable) says in 2008 there are 110K acres of upland (lowest since records were first kept in 1941) and 175K of Pima. Historical levels were 700-500K, with Pima growing from almost nothing to present levels over the last 15 years.
    Yes, over fishing has also played a part in the salmon disaster. The biggest difficulty in our collective discovery that it it the salmon smolts, not the adults, who are at risk, is that we have to protect a tiny fish living over a large area, for a year or two, instead of a giant ocean fed creature on a six week Kamikaze run.
    I just get tired of environmental "defenders" who simply think caring a lot about the bunnies is all that matters. There is science, and reading, and learning and hard work to be done; often leading you far from your initial convictions, if you have an open mind. I am tired of people with all the scientific authority (and all the mad conviction) of astrologers making outlandish statements, even policy decisions.

  5. 50 yrs of planning behind CA's "water shortage." Cities rebuilt on top of secretly replaced water system, being used to divert the water for upcoming development of casinos, golf courses, dams, housing, race tracks. CA will no longer be the "bread basket" of the nation - it will be the next "gambling capital of the U.S.!" See my page for photos and information: CLICK: Marla


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