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WATER WATCH : Liquid Loopholes

December 30, 1990

California's Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) will try again next year to close a loophole through which big, mostly corporate, farms get cheap water that Congress meant only for family farms.

His proposal, which sailed through the House last year by a 3-to-1 margin, makes sense in a couple of ways.

In the first place, the federal government got into the irrigation business in the early 1900s to encourage settlement of western lands. The only farms that could qualify for subsidized water were those of 160 acres or less.

During the Great Depression, Washington took over California's Central Valley Project, because the state could not afford the dams and canals that turned the San Joaquin Valley into one of the world's richest farmlands.

In 1982, Congress redefined a small farm as one under 960 acres. That left a loophole under which corporate farms carve themselves into 960-acre trusts or partnerships, each of which qualifies for subsidized water.

The price of irrigation water depends on the costs of pumping it to a farm, but the most expensive subsidized water costs less than half what unsubsidized water costs.

A second cause to cheer Miller's bill on is less direct, but no less important. California, in its fifth year of drought, must re-examine water pricing policies. The Metropolitan Water District did that recently when it changed the allotment to its water-agency customers and announced a penalty price for water that exceeds the allotment. Miller's bill would help spread the word, the pain, or both, to rural water users.

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