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Letter to the Editor
By Felice Pace, Klamath CA
January 28, 2004

Groundwater Pumping & Agricultural Subsidies

Tam Moores article in the May 7th edition of the Capitol Press: "Klamath Pumping Questioned", reports that the Federal Bureau of Reclamation is paying Klamath Basin irrigators millions of dollars to pump massive amounts of groundwater from an aquifer whose safe yield is unknown. The pumping continues even though the groundwater level is dropping annually and not recovering over the Winter. Irresponsible pumping is necessary because the Bush Administration insists on providing full irrigation deliveries in drought as well as wet years. Groundwater is being exploited mindlessly in order to balance water demand and supply in the overdrawn Basin.

But this is only part of the story: The federal government is also spending $50 million dollars in the Basin to improve irrigation efficiency. It is claimed that this will result in less demand for irrigation water and thereby help balance the Basins overdrawn water account. In reality, however, the taxpayer subsidies are providing Klamath Basin irrigators with the systems to utilize a second source of irrigation water groundwater to which they can turn when and if surface supplies are not available. The shiny new taxpayer funded irrigation systems also make it possible for irrigators to continue irrigating with groundwater while they receive payments from the treasury for not irrigating with surface flows.

In other cases, the water conservation projects make it possible for irrigators to extend the irrigation season and a significant portion of the groundwater being used is closely interconnected with surface flows. Thus in the Scott River sub-basin for example some taxpayer financed water conservationis resulting in more overall water use and less water flowing in streams where salmon spawn and rear.

There are even more significant implications of the Bush Administrations policy of paying irrigators annually not to irrigate with surface water. Under western water law water rights are not full property rights; rather they are limited to the right to irrigate. Traditionally, if the right is not exercised for irrigation, the water does not belong to the irrigator. Paying irrigators annually not to irrigate extends the right to irrigate to a full property right which can be used for any purpose and leased for non-irrigation purposed. The approach relies on massive annual inputs of taxpayer funds and amounts to a new irrigator entitlement. The new subsidy is being counted on by big agriculture to replace traditional crop and production subsidies which are becoming illegal under international trade law.

The Bush Administrations approach is not sustainable. How long can the government afford and will taxpayers consent to pay irrigators annually not to irrigate and how low will groundwater levels be allowed to fall?

Felice Pace, Klamath, CA

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