Commentary: Limits on ag irrigation subsidies

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A portion of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) has had an aspect of helping finance more efficient irrigation equipment by farmers, but an unexpected outcome or loophole apparently is that more irrigation equipment has been installed, which ultimately results in more water use.

At least that is a claim in an editorial in the New York Times—“Farm Subsidies Leading to More Water Use”—on June 7. Irrigating crops has lowered aquifer levels and reduced stream flow, the writer, Ron Nixon, contends.

After reading the editorial, a group of mainly western farm organizations and the Irrigation Association wrote a letter of response to the Times “highlighting the many attributes that irrigation agriculture provides.”    

As the IA noted in a news release about the group’s complaint, “the letter outlines the economic, environmental and social benefits of irrigated agriculture and discusses how productivity gains made by our nation’s farmers and ranchers are not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Besides the Irrigation Association the other groups signing the letter were the Family Farm Alliance, Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, Association of California Water Agencies, California Agricultural Irrigation Association, California Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Public Lands Council and the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, called irrigated agriculture “one of the largest economic engines in the Western U.S.” and suggested everyone look at the positive economic impact that agriculture provides states and the nation.

The response letter seemed to forget that the main aspect of the editorial was about water use increasing rather than decreasing, as some uniformed members of Congress apparently expected by voting in favor of EQIP.

Anyone who thought farmers would quit irrigating crops, if they had functioning irrigation equipment, and try to grow crops without irrigation is pretty naïve. Farmers having a chance to replace old pivot irrigators with new pivot irrigation that can be remotely controlled for more efficiency in water use is quite logical.

But at the same time, savings in water costs, higher crop prices and drought has encouraged some farmers to put in pivots on ground that wasn’t previously irrigated. Another pivot allows the farmer to grow higher return crops than was possible in a dry land situation. Additionally, in the long-lasting droughts, no pivot has meant no crops to harvest.

The Times editorial explained how a couple congressmen and the Environmental Working Group think that farmers should be limited in their free enterprise decisions if they accept government assistance in water efficiency. Basically, it appears that they want farmers who accept assistance to make their irrigation more efficient to be required to lower their water use and not install additional irrigation systems.

Living near a major irrigation area of the U.S., the Kansas City urban area, I’d have a hard time sitting on a water board basically telling some farmers to give up farming because irrigation water isn’t available to them but it is to the farmer across the road who inherited water rights.

When I drove from Kansas City to Sioux Falls, S.D., last week, I saw a large number of shiny, new looking pivots from Sioux Falls to Sioux City, Iowa. When I talked to a liquid fertilizer company employee, he explained that farmers had decided the insurance of a high-functioning pivot was necessary with the threat of more drought in years to come.

Water use for agriculture is a necessity to meet the goals of growing additional volumes of crops in the future, and there are no easy answers to how that water is allocated between rural and urban areas and to which farmers.

But my guess is that government assistance to install new efficient pivot irrigation equipment is going to end.

Click here to read the New York Times op-ed

Click here to view the full letter response to the op-ed.

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June, 14, 2013 at 08:20 AM

Ron Nixon is a reporter and not on the editorial team at NYT -- it was a factual article not an editorial.

North Central Kansas  |  June, 20, 2013 at 09:07 AM

You can not add ground that has no irrigation history to an Eqip application. If this is happening it needs to be reported to the Office of the Inspector General in USDA.

Central High Plains  |  July, 19, 2013 at 05:37 PM

To my knowledge most of the EQIP in Western Nebraska, Eastern Colorado and western Kansas has gone to upgrade from Flood/Row water to pivots. In earlier days NRCS/SCS funded pipeline projects to get rid of ditch seepage. Pivots will allow much higher efficiency on water use but may not necessarily save water since there may be historic irrigated acres that were not irrigated recently, but now because of pivot application technology can be. Efficient irrigation is critical to spreading water to as many uses as possible including municipal and domestic use. Still not sure I agree with that use of funds but it is better than I have seen in a lot of the CSP programs. I have no idea how the program is administered elsewhere. Just because the writer sees new pivots in travels doesn't mean the government had any part in the purchase. It comes down to risk management of crop loss and income production against the cost associated with the equipment purchase and setup. There have been many pivots replaced in the High plains in the last several years that the government had no part in. Farm income was strong and a lot of the previous pivots were over 20 years old so it was time if the capital was available.


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