Irrigation policy seems baffling . . . but it’s government squandering at its best

Its not about Alberta's irrigation policy, that seems perfectly reasonable compared to the politically-charged, hidden agendas of the US's.

No it’s not about Alberta irrigation policy, that seems perfectly reasonable compared to the politically-charged and hidden agendas of irrigation policy in the USA. A recent visit to Phoenix Arizona found your columnist amazed at the sight of thousands of acres of cotton being grown in the desert. Those acres were irrigated by water from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. This would seem like a dubious agricultural enterprise considering the capital investment and ongoing operational costs of maintaining such extensive water distribution in a very hot climate. Water evaporation alone would be the biggest disadvantage to efficient water movement. But then you can depend on government policy to overcome common sense particularly if it involves agriculture in the USA. That sees the growing of government-financed irrigation crops that both solve and create problems that never existed before. It’s also a sure-fire avenue to massive subsidization of agricultural production, something Americans tend to deny exists.

To be fair, irrigation has existed in the Phoenix area for hundreds of years being first initiated by indigenous peoples. Those early societies built extensive water distributions systems that irrigated hundreds of acres. But it was small scale that utilized existing rivers to grow modest crops of corn, squash and other subsistence crops. When white settlers came into the area in the 1880s, they began more extensive irrigation using dams, reservoirs and most important – drawing water from deep aquifers underneath the desert. That all seemed to work with farmers growing crops that returned modest profits like citrus, vegetables, potatoes and some livestock production. However, that was going to change with the building of the Hoover dam on the Colorado River. Because that river bordered Arizona, the state received a share of the reservoir water; the catch was that it was primarily to be used for agricultural crop production. That was a good intention, but existing farmers already were using water from other sources and saw no need for more water that was going to be very costly to deliver and buy. The state of Arizona found itself in a predicament – they had access to a massive water source but few farmers wanting use it. However, they had an ulterior motive to see that water moved across the desert -they wanted to use it for their expanding urban population growth – particularly in Phoenix which is now one of the largest cities in the USA.

However the US government would not finance the building of the 200 mile plus canal unless it was to be used for agricultural production. The solution was obvious, give existing irrigation farmers almost free water and then subsidize the growing of the thirstiest of all hot weather crops – cotton. Crafty Arizona government planners probably figured that in the long term, irrigation farmers would eventually sell out to land developers and the irrigation water would become surplus and then made available for urban use.

In the meantime here is how it worked; a three billion dollar major water canal was built by the US government. Water from the canal is sold to irrigation farmers for a nominal fee. To use as much water as possible farmers were encouraged to grow cotton which is seven times thirstier than any other crop. To make sure farmers stick with growing cotton, the US government provides a floor price for any cotton that is grown through a forgivable loan scheme. It guarantees a profit to growers no matter what the cotton market price does. That’s a deal farmers couldn’t refuse. That market subsidization approach is much despised by other cotton growing countries as it constantly depresses world cotton prices. Most cotton grown in the US is exported to offshore countries like China for processing. It boggles the mind. It should be noted that some other crops like potatoes and alfalfa are grown under irrigation but they are minor compared to cotton growing.

There is more, because they have so much irrigation water available, conservation is not encouraged. That sees almost all irrigation using the ancient flood plain method rather than low pressure crop level pivots than reduce water usage. Some subsurface flood irrigation is being developed but it also seems wasteful compared to what is done with irrigation in Alberta.

One can only imagine the billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars that have and will be spent on irrigation in Arizona and elsewhere in the USA. It all shows that we in Canada are bit players when it comes to agricultural subsidization.


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