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AgMag BLOG

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Westland's Water Subsidies More Corporate Welfare

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bakersfield Californian, Bill Walker

Published October 29, 2005

In his recent Community Voices column, the president of Westlands Water District blasted Environmental Working Group's investigation of the district's proposed federal water subsidies contract.

We agree with Jean Sagouspe on one point: Our agenda -- to price federal Central Valley Project water more fairly and equitably -- should concern every taxpayer. But a number of his assertions demand correction:

* EWG has "a long history of anti-farming activities." Only if that means we believe water and crop subsidies should go to the family farmers they were meant to help, not well-off agribusiness corporations. Our investigations have exposed that the great majority of subsidies go to the biggest and richest farms, and that these billions in corporate welfare are helping push small farmers off the land.

* Making irrigation districts pay more for water would "make California more dependent on foreign-grown food." Fewer than 10 percent of California farmers receive federal water subsidies, yet the state is by far the nation's largest food producer. About one- third of Westlands' acreage is not in food crops but cotton -- a commodity in such surplus its price had to be propped up by $1.6 billion in subsidies last year.

* "Under the new contract, Westlands will be entitled to receive exactly the same amount of water." It is true that the old and new contracts promise Westlands 1.15 million acre-feet a year. But that is far more than the state's precipitation and the CVP can reliably provide. New long-term contracts were an opportunity make contracted amounts conform to reality.

Instead, the Bureau of Reclamation has drawn up a detailed schedule showing how it will deliver the full contract amount by 2030. Westlands is promised "full delivery" even though drainage problems could force hundreds of thousands of acres to be taken out of production.

* Westlands is made up of "600 family farming operations." There are small family farms in Westlands. There are also dozens of large, diversified operations that divide their holdings to get around the law that says farms larger than 960 acres are ineligible for subsidized water. According to UC Berkeley farm economist David Sunding, the 10 largest common ownership groups in Westlands hold one- sixth of the district's 600,000 acres.

For example, the Woolf Enterprises empire includes 10 or more companies controlled by two dozen family members spanning three generations. By our calculations, Woolf-controlled operations received $3.5 million to $4.2 million in water subsidies in 2002, and about $4 million in federal crop subsidies from 1995 to 2003. It is a family operation, but so is Ford Motor Co. Why should this family expect taxpayers to prop up a business model that depends on artificially low rates for water and artificially high prices for its products?

Sagouspe closes by warning that EWG's "falsehoods and fallacies" hurt the credibility of the environmental movement. Maybe he should ask whether Westlands' disingenuous attempts to hide its dependence on corporate welfare behind the image of the family farmer are hurting the credibility of California agriculture.

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