WASHINGTON — Farmers should pay the full cost of irrigation water used to grow surplus crops, congressmen, conservation groups and consumer advocates argued Tuesday, as representatives of large Western farming interests expressed fears that such a requirement could put them out of business.
A House panel heard complaints that some farmers receive federal funds not to produce surplus crops while others receive subsidies that encourage such production, at hearings on a bill that would limit new federal farm subsidies for irrigation. The measure pits rural against urban interests and East against West.
"We think this insanity ought not be continued in the future," Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), author of the measure, told members of the Interior and Insular Affairs subcommittee on water and power resources. "It causes havoc and outrage. When I tell people about this, it absolutely boggles their minds."
"I call it organized larceny," said Carolina Butler, a Scottsdale, Ariz., resident who has actively lobbied against farm water subsidies.
'Damaging Impact' Cited
But Daniel Errotabere, spokesman for the California Assn. of Wheat Growers and a wheat, cotton, vegetable and seed crop farmer from Riverdale, Calif., said the legislation would have an "unfair and damaging impact" on farming operations like his.
"At a time when wheat producers in California, as well as across the country, are faced with unprecedented economic problems, a proposal like (this) would surely put many of us out of business for good," Errotabere said.
The bill, which would amend a 1939 law, would affect new water contract applications or renewals and would require the Interior Department to charge the full cost for water delivered from any federal irrigation project for the production of crops already subsidized by price support programs.
Under current rules, some farmers pay as little as one-fifth of the actual cost of irrigating land. According to a 1984 Agriculture Department study, about 45% of the acreage supplied with federally subsidized water is used to grow surplus crops.
Advocates say that the bill, targeting mainly large "managed" farms, would reduce the supply of surplus crops and trim the government's $25-billion price support program, thus reducing the budget deficit. At the same time, they argue, it would make more water available to cities by encouraging conservation and eliminating water consumption by farms that would otherwise be unprofitable.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the subcommittee and a proponent of the bill, estimated that the government spends between $260 million and $376 million per year to provide irrigation water that helps to produce surplus crops.
"We have taxpayer-subsidized projects delivering taxpayer-subsidized water to farmers, who use it to produce subsidized and surplus crops," Miller said. "This is not rational. This is a waste of taxpayer dollars."
Miller contended that the subsidies are comparatively small--amounting to "a freckle on the rear end of a flea"--but said the issue is an example of waste that cannot be permitted in an era of large budget deficits. "This bill says you can't pile one subsidy on top of another. It says to a few farmers: 'Pick your subsidy; you can't have them all,' " he said.
New Gluts Foreseen
However, opponents argue that it unfairly singles out Western farms that rely on federal irrigation water and would eliminate jobs in communities based around farming. They say the bill would merely create new gluts in crops such as tomatoes, lettuce and melons as farmers switched from one crop to another.
John Pucheu, a cotton farmer in Tranquillity, Calif., and a member of the board of directors of the Western Cotton Growers Assn., said the bill could devastate the state's cotton farmers because it would mean a doubling or tripling of water costs.
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the majority whip, called the proposed legislation "a bad bill" and predicted that it would not go anywhere in Congress.