Tag Archives: water

‘Smeary’ Lake Erie — progress, and setbacks

The Great Lakes are no longer a dumping ground for industrial pollution. But farm run-off, aquatic invaders and climate change are once again putting fish and clean water in jeopardy


The Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes o New York state from the International Space Station, June 14, 2012, by the Expedition 31 crew. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=78617

The Great Lakes contain some 84% of North America’s surface fresh water, and about 21% of the world’s supply of surface fresh water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Above, the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes in New York state seen from the International Space Station, June 14, 2012, by the Expedition 31 crew. Photo: NASA, Public Domain

By Brian Bienkowski, Environmental Health News
March, 2016

EAST LANSING, Michigan—When Dr. Suess wrote his iconic children’s book “The Lorax” in 1971, he took a swipe at the Great Lakes.

“They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary, in search of some water that isn’t so smeary. I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”

If the line doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry: It was removed after Ohio Sea Grant employees wrote the author to fill him in on the major strides in improving the lake’s health.

Lake Erie and its four great cousins have benefited mightily from cleanup and research in the 45 years since Dr. Suess penned what became his personal favorite. However, from plummeting prey fish populations to poopy Michigan rivers, grave threats to the region’s ecosystems remain, scientists and officials said at the annual Michigan Water Heritage conference held at Michigan State University this month.

Jon Allan, director of the Office of the Great Lakes, made note of the progress since the 1970s. For years we had “our backs to water, communities backed up to waterfront, we dumped our garbage there. How many of you remember those days?” he asked.

In the audience most of the roughly 150 water quality researchers, fisheries biologists, agency scientists, nonprofit employees and others raised a hand.

“Those days were not pleasant.”

Quagga mussels in fish trawl. Lake Michigan, August 2006. Photo NOAA

Quagga mussels, seen here in a 2006 fish trawl, are disrupting food chains in Lake Michigan. Photo NOAA, Public Domain

It’s true industrial waste largely stopped flowing into waters, but other problems percolated: invasive species, farm runoff, sewage overflows and failing septic systems. Quagga mussels are screwing up food chains in Lake Michigan, rivers are bearing the brunt of unregulated farm waste, and Lake Erie, once declared dead in the late 1960s, is once again suffering from large nutrient-driven dead zones.

Craig Stow, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, has spent more than two decades studying the Great Lakes. We’ve “slipped back” a bit recently, he said, saying that Lake Erie algae blooms have been on the rise in recent years. Last summer the largest bloom on record, about 300 square miles, tainted western Lake Erie.

Phosphorous runoff, mostly from farming, especially in Ohio’s Maumee River valley, feeds such blooms in the warm and shallow waters of the western part of the lake. Such blooms can produce harmful toxins and hurt humans and ecosystems. Stopping them will only become more difficult as the climate changes: long-term precipitation trends show bigger, fiercer downpours since the late 1990s; in conjunction, Maumee River discharge has increased. “We’re seeing some really important change in dynamics driving algal blooms in Lake Erie,” Stow said.

Officials are starting to pay attention. Just last month the U.S. and Canada adopted new targets to reduce phosphorous entering Lake Erie by 40 percent. Ohio governor and presidential hopeful John Kasich, beleaguered Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne spearheaded the effort.

Stow said such efforts are crucial to prevent taking giant steps backward.

“We’re going to be managing phosphorous for a long, long time,” Stow said. “If we don’t develop good adaptive management plans, we’re going to be back in the same position we were in 1980s.”

There is some good news. Western Lake Erie is the only section in all five Great Lakes where prey fish populations—the ones feeding popular predator fish such as salmon and trout feed—haven’t trended downward since 1980, said David Bunnell, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

That can’t be said for Lake Michigan. Last year Bunnell and colleagues reported the lowest catch rate ever for all fish groups—commercially harvested fish, sport harvested fish and prey fish—in Lake Michigan. Salmon populations, too, were down 75 percent from their 2012 peak.

This is worrisome for anyone who remembers the salmon crash in Lake Huron about a decade ago due to vanishing alewife, a staple of the predator’s diet. Salmon still haven’t recovered there.

Nascent research suggests a bottom-up problem in the lakes, Bunnell said: Declining nutrients, due largely to invasive, filter-feeding quagga mussels, break the food chain for creatures like zooplankton, which sustain alewife and other prey fish.

“Salmon need to eat more alewife to get the same amount of calories.”-David Bunnell, USGSA study last year found about 80 percent of larval alewife in Lake Michigan had empty stomachs. And their energy density—how much of a caloric punch they pack—has declined about 33 percent over the past decade.

A crash in salmon stocks could have a considerable impact on the shore and throughout the region: Salmon are a hugely popular sport fish and bring a lot of dollars to the state.

Then there’s the poop problem.

“I’m glad my talk was after lunch,” quipped Molly Rippke, an aquatic biologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Much of Tuesday’s session focused on the Great Lakes. Rippke reminded attendees “all rivers lead to the beach.” And many of those rivers bring poop with them.

Rippke estimated that 50 percent of Michigan rivers exceed acceptable levels of E. coli, a harmful bacteria indicating contamination from feces: Failing septic systems, farm runoff, congregating wildlife and combined sewer overflows.

Rippke and colleagues are trying to tease out causes to better stop the contamination. One thing was clear in their study of rivers: as agriculture increases, E. coli tends to increase, she said. They also found that the more forested land in a watershed, the lower the harmful bacteria levels.

But there is a glaring need for more science—they only sampled 11 percent of rivers in Michigan, a state with 120 major rivers covering 36,350 square miles.

While the conference focused on watersheds, with the city of Flint just an hour away, the issue of safe drinking water loomed large.

About 70 percent of people in Michigan are on a public water supply, Allan said.

“How many of you think that infrastructure is as good as it can be?” he asked the crowd made of mostly of water quality researchers and professionals.

Not a hand went up in the packed auditorium.

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This story was first published by Environmental Health News; view the original story. For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.


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The Referendum That Might Have Headed Off Flint’s Water Crisis

Michigan National Guard members go door to door to deliver water, filters, replacement cartridges and water test kits to residents of Flint, Michigan on January 19, 2016. (Photos by U.S. National Guard Maj. Joe Cannon/Released)

Michigan National Guard members go door to door to deliver water, filters, replacement cartridges and water test kits to residents of Flint, Michigan on January 19, 2016. Photo: U.S. National Guard Maj. Joe Cannon, Public Domain

by Alec MacGillis, ProPublica
March, 2016

The tragic lead poisoning of the Flint water supply in Michigan is a study in bureaucratic bungling, racial inequity and national media inattention. But the fallout from the crisis has obscured another lesson: There are consequences when those in power are able simply to circumvent the public will.

For two decades, Michigan has used emergency managers to supplant local elected officials and bring order to its most financially troubled cities. Flint has been overseen since 2011 by a succession of these state appointees, who have power to cut spending and sell off assets to raise money.

The city was under the authority of an emergency manager when it opted in 2013 to switch its source of drinking water from the Detroit system to a new pipeline being built from Lake Huron — and, most fatefully, to save money by drawing water from the Flint River in the interim. The city failed to add phosphates to the river water to prevent corrosion of lead pipes, at what would have been a cost of $100 per day.

Now public health workers are trying to determine how many of the roughly 8,600 children under the age of six in Flint have suffered lead poisoning from corrosion in the water supply and officials are deciding whether to replace all of the city’s 15,000 lead pipes — an estimated $55 million undertaking.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder Answers Media Questions in 2012. Photo: Michigan Municipal League, Creative Commons

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder Answers Media Questions in 2012. Photo: Michigan Municipal League, Creative Commons

There might not have been a super-empowered emergency manager at all in Flint if a 2012 referendum had been allowed to stand.

The saga dates to early 2011, when Rick Snyder took office as the state’s governor. The mild-mannered venture capitalist had run as a technocratic fix-it man for recession-wracked Michigan — “one tough nerd” was his Twitter handle and “relentless positive action” was his slogan. “I think we’re on a course that hopefully is a role model for other places,” he told me that spring. “Spending time on blame-placing has no value. Spending time on taking credit for anything has no value. The only thing that has value is actually accomplishing results that solve the problem.”

One of his first actions was to sign legislation greatly enhancing the powers of emergency managers. The state had in years prior deployed emergency managers in seven cities (including Flint) and the Detroit school system, but Snyder, the Republican-controlled legislature and the former Democratic legislator whom Snyder appointed as treasurer decided that the managers needed more authority.

The new law set earlier triggers for state intervention, and, crucially, authorized managers to modify the terms of collective bargaining agreements to cut personnel costs, the largest burden for cities and school districts. Snyder also proposed deep cuts in revenue-sharing for poor cities — an $8.1 million hit for Flint alone, equivalent to nearly half of the city’s deficit. “The taxpayers are in a very difficult situation now,” Snyder said at the time during a visit to Flint. “We need to show our citizens value for money.”

Not surprisingly, the new law angered the state’s public employee unions. But it also provoked backlash from an ad hoc group of activists who viewed the new law as inherently undemocratic, and who noted that there would be less need for Draconian action in the targeted cities (which were, for the most part, heavily African American) if the state hadn’t slashed funding for them over the years.

One of these activists was Amy Kerr Hardin, a former branch manager at a small bank in Northern Michigan, near Traverse City. In the summer of 2011, she and hundreds of others started collecting petitions to challenge the law in a referendum on the 2012 ballot. It was a slog: under state law, the entire law had to be printed on each petition, which amounted to a 26-page foldout. The petitions had to be segregated by each of the state’s 83 counties, so each canvasser had to carry a large bag, or even a wagon, filled with dozens of petitions in case he or she encountered a signer from another jurisdiction.

Hardin and her North Country comrades canvassed at farmer’s markets, the National Cherry Festival, and the Traverse City Film Festival. Their downstate counterparts hit football tailgates and the Blossomtime Festival in Benton Harbor, one of the cities under an emergency manager. It wasn’t easy explaining the issue — “it was pretty unsexy,” said Hardin — but the canvassers would try to make it concrete by describing consequences of the law, such as the risk that an emergency manager could sell Benton Harbor’s big lakeside park, one of its few assets. The effort received scant attention in the media — one press conference in Traverse City attracted only a single person from a little-known local outlet.

Eventually, though, the canvassers amassed 225,000 signatures, well above the required 162,000. They overcame a last-minute challenge over whether the petition font had been large enough. And on Election Day in 2012, 53 percent of the electorate voted to repeal the 2011 emergency manager law.

Any celebration was short-lived. A few weeks later, the legislature took up a bill to simply replace the repealed emergency manager law with a new, very similar one.

The replacement differed in some particulars — it gave local elected officials the right to propose alternatives to an emergency manager’s cuts, if they saved as much money, and to vote to remove him or her by a two-thirds vote (though only after 18 months.) But it retained the main elements of the rejected law, such as the power to modify union contracts and sell off local assets. The tweaks would only apply to future emergency managers, not the ones already governing cities and school systems. And the legislature attached a small budget appropriation to the new law, which made it impervious to referendum.

“It was an amazing power grab,” said Gretchen Whitmer, who was then the leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate. “It was stunning.”

It took aback even some of her Republican colleagues, three of whom voted against the replacement. “The people spoke loud and clear,” said Tonya Schuitmaker, a Republican who had voted for the 2011 law. “I gave deference to them and why they did not want it.” Mike Kowall, a Republican who had also voted for the 2011 law, wouldn’t back the new measure. “I was not going to go against the vote of the people,” he said.

The newspaper in the conservative western Michigan town of Holland was also opposed to the “galling” maneuver, saying that while it backed the emergency manager law in concept, “that doesn’t justify the short-circuiting of democracy.”

In an interview, Randy Richardville, who at the time was the Republican leader in the Senate, justified the maneuver by calling the referendum into question. “Quite frankly, the proposal was not written very well,” he said. “The language in the proposal was not enough to explain to the people what was trying to be done.” Andy Dillon, the then-treasurer, said the referendum had not been adequately vetted prior to the election because its opponents had focused their attention on successfully opposing another ballot question, to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. “There was like zero effort put into defending that law,” Dillon said.

So instead of fighting the referendum when it was before the voters, its opponents simply overruled it. Snyder, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, signed the replacement law on Dec. 27, 2012. Less than four months later, Flint’s emergency manager signed an agreement moving the city into the new water system. Three months after that, he settled on the Flint River as the interim source.

To Whitmer, who is now contemplating a run for governor in 2018, there is a link between the disregard of the referendum result and the circumvention of local authority in the emergency manager law. “This is the exact thing you get when you combine austerity measures with callous disregard for local people,” she said.

Hardin, the branch manager turned activist, won’t go so far as to claim vindication. But she notes, darkly, that the arduous task of collecting the petitions would have been easier if state residents had been aware of just how big the stakes were.

“We had to come up with scenarios of real things that could happen,” she said. “If we had said, ‘We could poison an entire city under this scenario,’ no one would have believed us. It would have been too wild.”

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Killing the Colorado: Water Rights and the Right to Waste

Lake Powell "LakePowell3" by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

Lake Powell “LakePowell3” by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, in collaboration with Matter
June, 2015

High in the Rocky Mountains, snowmelt fills a stream that trickles down into Ohio Creek and then onward toward the Upper Gunnison River. From there, it tumbles through the chasms of the Black Canyon, joining the Colorado River, filling the giant Lake Powell reservoir, and, one day, flowing to Los Angeles.

But before the water gets more than a few miles off the mountain, much of this stream is diverted into dirt ditches used by ranchers along the Ohio Creek Valley. Standing astride one of those ditches one day last fall, Bill Ketterhagen dug his boot soles against the concrete edge of a 5-foot-wide dam. He spun a steel wheel and opened a gate that allowed water to pour into his fields of hay crops.

Ketterhagen, 39, manages a 750-acre ranch outside the town of Gunnison, Colorado, for its out-of-state owners, mostly growing a mixture of Meadow Foxtail, Timothy, wheat grasses and some alfalfa. The grasses, knee-high with bursts of clover flowers and flat, slender leaves, are cut, baled and shipped to feedlots where they fatten cattle soon to be slaughtered for beef.

"Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, CO IMG 5651" by Billy Hathorn - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG#/media/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG

A cattle feedlot in Colorado. Photo Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Thickly built, wearing overalls and a four-day beard, Ketterhagen has a degree in biology and natural resource management and once worked in a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He knows his fields could thrive with much smaller amounts of water — he’s seen them do so in dry years — but the property owners he works for have the legal right to take a large supply, and he applies the water generously. 

“When we have it, we’ll use it,” he said. “You’ll open your head gate all the way and take as much as you can — whether you need it or not.”

Ketterhagen feels he has little choice. A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed. 

There are few starker examples of how man’s missteps and policies are contributing to the water shortage currently afflicting the western United States. In a series of reports, ProPublica is examining how decisions on water management and growth have exacerbated more than a decade of drought, bringing the West to the point of crisis. The Colorado River is the most important source of water for nearly 40 million people across California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and supports some 15 percent of the nation’s food crops. 

But the river is in trouble, and water laws are one significant cause. Legal water rights and state allocations have been issued for more water than the river, in an average year, can provide. Meanwhile its annual flow has been steadily decreasing as the climate changes and drought grips the region. And so, for more than a decade, states and the federal government have tried to wring more supply out of the Colorado and spread it further, in part by persuading the farmers and ranchers who use the vast majority of the river’s water and have the largest water rights to conserve it.

But in many ways it’s the vast body of often-antiquated law governing western water rights, officials acknowledge, that actively undermines conservation, making waste — or at least heavy use — entirely rational.

“Water is money,” said Eugene Backhaus, a state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which works to help ranchers use water more efficiently. “The way the current water law structure is, if they don’t use it for the assigned use, they could lose the water right.” 

Adding to the problems, the states linked by reliance on the Colorado govern their water resources separately and have not standardized their water laws. While states have made incremental adjustments to those laws, they have not recast them to address the new needs of a region undergoing vast changes. Some rules force ranchers to dry up entire streams; others ignore the ecological value of maintaining a healthy river. The common element of all these laws is the blunt ethos of the West: Water exists mainly in order to get used up, even if that means deepening the problems of neighboring states.

Ketterhagen understands that the ranch he runs sits atop a system under enormous stress and that he’s wasting water in a region that desperately needs it. But he also understands Colorado water law — rights are precious, and sometimes more valuable even than the land to which they are attached. 

Throughout the long, hot summer, Ketterhagen let water course through his fields, irrigating his pastures and vitalizing the gravelly soil beneath. Last spring, the water flowed over the grass’s roots, drowning them, and climbed past the first leaves of the sprouting plants until it stood calf-deep.

“She’s my gauge,” Ketterhagen said, pointing at Gilli, his black and white Aussie heeler mix, who bounded around the field. “When I see a little bit of spray kicking up behind her, it’s just right.”

The body of law governing how water is distributed in the West was shaped by the gold rush. 

As people were lured to settle vast, uninhabited and arid parts of the country, they staked their claims to land and water only to face fierce competition upstream as rivers were diverted to sluice for treasure. Courts decreed that water would be saved for the first to use it. Since most property was far from streams and there was little rain, officials then gave settlers formal rights to take water out of rivers and move it across dry land where it could be used to mine minerals or turn rocky fields into farms. 

As western territories became states, those states institutionalized the rules — sometimes in their state constitutions — first locking in water rights for those who were already there and then issuing more to those who requested them, on a first-come-first-served basis. For irrigation, shares were apportioned according to crude 19th-century notions of how much water was needed to get 40 acres of dry soil to produce a crop. In times of drought, those with the oldest, or most senior, rights to water would get it first; those with the newest rights would have to wait at the back of the line. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the seven states whose territory was touched by the Colorado River and its tributaries began to compete for access to the source of that water. Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, led negotiations in which the states agreed on an estimate of the amount of water in the river. The rights to most of the flow were split between states in the upper and lower basins. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico got half, while Arizona, California and Nevada got the rest. This was, in part, to keep California — already the most populous and industrious of western states — from taking it all. Each state continued to govern the rights to water distributed within its borders. 

But even in that first 1922 compact, more water was divvied up on paper than would actually run through the river. Officials, it turned out, had estimated the Colorado’s average flow after a period of unusually wet conditions, calculating that 18 million acre-feet flowed through the river each year, and dividing up some 15 million acre-feet, or 4.8 trillion gallons of water, between the states. Within two decades they began to understand their folly: During many years as little as 12 million acre-feet flowed, and under normal conditions the river would rarely yield close to the amount of water expected. And yet the states piled on more obligations, bringing the amount of water parceled out even higher. In 1944, for instance, Congress signed a treaty promising an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, where the Colorado River naturally ends. 

Today, 15 years into an epochal drought, 16.5 million acre-feet of water have been allocated, while the river, during the recent drought, has been flowing at a rate of around 12.4 million acre-feet each year.

Still, aside from a 2007 temporary pact to divide the pain of river shortages between them, officials in the seven states have never renegotiated the original river compact or fundamentally changed the foundations of water law that lead to overuse. The result is a set of codified principles designed for a different era and divorced from today’s environmental realities. 

The term “water law” in the Colorado River basin has come to refer to a monstrous volume of federal statutes and agreements, court precedents and state laws and regulations that can differ from place to place and have changed incrementally over the years but are structured by the interstate agreements to divide the river. Most of those state laws share the basic principle that the first people to arrive in the West should hold the most senior rights to its water. 

The notion of “first in time, first in right” has persisted even as the need for water has exploded in urban areas that sprang up long after most water rights were distributed and therefore rank lowest in priority. 

Fly-fishing, rafting and mountain tourism contribute billions of dollars to Colorado’s economy, yet in most cases state law distributes rights to a majority of water in streams and tributaries to farmers and ranchers and incentivizes them to leave little, if any, for recreational use. Many small streams in the Rockies run dry by midsummer, often because ranchers don’t have a reason to let water pass them by. 

“Ninety percent of water users thought water running downstream was wasted water,” said Cary Denison, the Gunnison basin project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a sportsmen’s and river conservation group working with ranchers to get them to use less water. 

Years of worsening water scarcity passed before those ranchers began to appreciate how their practices — and the laws guiding them — were contributing to the problem. “Only recently do we start to see articles in the paper about the drought, and we think, gosh, we have some effect on this,” Denison said.

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Even when there is no more water to distribute, Colorado officials can certify place holders in an endless line, assuring that water will be overallocated forever and that someone will always use whatever the last person leaves untouched.

“The whole system is designed towards preserving the status quo,” said Jim Lochhead, the chief executive of the urban utility Denver Water, who formerly represented Colorado on interstate water negotiations. The most pragmatic approach, he thinks, is to build off existing water law while reforming its worst parts. But in a perfect world, he said, “I would abolish Colorado water rights law and start all over again with a clean slate.”

None of the antiquated parts of what across the entire basin is referred to loosely as “water law” play as much a role in stressing the water system — or seem as fixable — as the one known as “use it or lose it.” 

Originally devised in part to keep speculators from hoarding water to build wealth and power, the intent of “use it” laws was to make sure the people who held rights to water exercised them. They could keep those rights indefinitely, passing them on through generations or selling them, attached to the land, at great profit, as long as they constantly put the water to what most Western water laws refer to as “beneficial use.” 

Each Colorado River basin state has a variation of rules promising to confiscate water rights if water users don’t maximize their use. While some of the laws allow for state-approved conservation or other flexibility, legal experts say ranchers often understand the laws to be absolute. Colorado authorities keep a list of property owners whose water rights are primed for “abandonment,” meaning that the full extent of the rights haven’t been exercised, by intent and on average, over a 10-year period.

The provision leaves landowners feeling they have little choice but to take as much as they are allowed, and many do it year in and year out to preserve the value of their property. “I would say to my clients: ‘You have to protect yourself … by using the water that is appropriated,'” said John McClow, a prominent water rights attorney who represented the state on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the interstate water management coalition, and now serves on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But maximizing their rights keeps the river under maximum strain. 

It’s not just ranchers who feel they must use up water for fear of losing rights to it. Towns, counties and even states do more or less the same thing, not necessarily because they are bound by abandonment clauses like ranchers but because they harbor fears of losing their water as it flows out of state. There is a push for Colorado to maximize its use of all the water it can. 

“The state of Colorado is supposed to double in size by 2050,” said Marc Catlin, who sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and represents Montrose County, which has filed applications to snatch up additional conditional water rights for its own future growth. “And somebody has got to be thinking about the future if that’s the case.”

The effects of “use it or lose it” laws are so significant that policy experts warn that western states won’t be able to begin untangling larger issues of drought and conservation without dealing with it first. “It’s fundamental,” said Laura Ziemer, senior counsel for Trout Unlimited and a leading expert on water law. 

Any reform would probably have to happen state by state. States are fiercely protective of their sovereign rights to govern their water resources, and the federal government has repeatedly pledged not to interfere. Challenging state leaders on that, said Pat Mulroy, the former head of Las Vegas’ water authority and Nevada’s former negotiator on the Colorado River, is a sure way to “see eyeballs start popping out and bones start showing up on the side of their backs.” 

At the state level, suggestions that the “first-in-time” water rights policies might be modified triggers an equally radical reaction, conjuring fears of property seizure and a nearly religious opposition to change. Even the most ardent supporters of such changes — people like Lochhead of Denver Water — admit water laws are probably too sensitive to be reformed any time soon. 

Still, overhauling “use it or lose it” clauses would protect property, could offer quick improvement for water supplies and has the support of many ranchers. 

Recognizing that its groundwater aquifers were being rapidly depleted, Kansas passed legislation protecting farmers’ full water rights even if they choose to use less water in any given year. But efforts to pass a similar measure in Colorado have so far failed. Last year Colorado’s governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed ranchers to use less water without jeopardizing their long-term entitlements, and an effort to revive the issue earlier this year hit a dead end. Some ranchers — including Ketterhagen — wanted to see the water they didn’t need stay in the river, where it would support the state’s booming fishing and outdoor tourism economy. But others, including those with more junior water rights, didn’t want to give water to trout — or to lower basin states.

“Do we want to fix it in a way that sends more water to Arizona?” asked McClow, the water attorney. “We’re still parochial about that. If we save some water, I think we want to use it ourselves.”

Across the fields from the ranch managed by Ketterhagen lives Bill Trampe, a significant user of Colorado water and one of the most influential.

Like his father and grandfather, Trampe, 68, harvests alfalfa on what is now 6,000 acres of picturesque rolling hay crops and grassland 30 minutes outside the town of Crested Butte. His grandfather cleared stones and dug the miles of irrigation ditches that bring water to the ranch with his own hands.

Trampe sits on the boards of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee. Many of the River District members at first supported Colorado’s attempt to fix the “use it or lose it” law last year. But when Trampe — who argued the law would embroil ranchers in expensive legal and engineering fights to defend their water rights — came out in opposition, momentum shifted against the bill, and the governor ultimately killed it. 

Trampe, like many alfalfa ranchers, flood irrigates his pastures, and he says that while the water he dumps on his fields can seem excessive, it serves other invisible but essential purposes. He fears a law that encourages farmers to conserve water would have unintended consequences on a complex natural system. 

Driving his combine tractor, his thick, calloused hands wrapped over the vinyl steering wheel, Trampe described his fields in the way that only someone who has spent his entire life on the land can. Because his rocky soil drains quickly, the extra water he applies seeps downward and keeps the underlying aquifer full, he says. What water isn’t sipped up by his own plants flows underground downhill to benefit his neighbors, and ultimately to provide a steady flow of water back into the river itself. 

Before there was farming, Trampe says, there wasn’t much of a ground water supply in his part of the valley north of Gunnison. But today households there depend on water wells for bathing and drinking, and those wells tap into a water table that is kept artificially high by the overuse of irrigation water on the ranches. There is also the drain water: “return flows” that seep back into the river to be claimed again by “junior” water rights holders downstream. 

Return flows are an essential component of Colorado water accounting, and ranchers like to say their water is recycled four or five times by the time it gets all the way down to the main stem of the river. Among Trampe’s concerns is that conservation would wind up cutting off return flows the next farmer counts on. 

“Over a century, we’ve been irrigating this country, and we’ve established an ecology based on what we’ve been doing,” he said.

Trampe also sees conservation efforts as a sort of Trojan horse. He says that, squeezed between Denver to the east and all the big thirsty desert cities downstream, Colorado’s ranchers are under siege. 

“The municipalities will come here and condemn us, or buy us out,” he said.

Indeed, western cities have become increasingly critical of the imbalance between rural and urban regions when it comes to rights to water. “There is a very small number of people that control a huge amount of water,” said Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. “Is it truly equitable that water was allocated 100 years ago and now we are locked into that forever?”

Denver and other eastern Colorado cities already take 154 billion gallons of water across the Continental Divide from western Colorado each year. Schemes to build more tunnels to divert more water from rural western areas like Gunnison are a constant concern. And last July the utilities and groups that represent the lower river states’ biggest urban areas — including Las Vegas, Denver and Los Angeles — proposed a pilot program to find additional water supplies in the agriculturally rich parts of Colorado, in part by paying people like Trampe to fallow fields, be more water-efficient or perhaps lease or sell their water rights. 

“The cities continue to grow and grow and grow — and they expect me — or us as an industry — to give up water,” Trampe said. “Why should I suffer for their sprawl?” 

Mercury Pool, Caesar's Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Mercury Pool, Caesar’s Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

In 2012, it hardly snowed in Colorado. Even in the Colorado River’s uppermost reaches, streams narrowed to a desperate trickle in the early summer, and long before Gunnison’s ranchers could take their water, Ohio Creek and the other tributaries nearly ran dry. A strange thing happened as a result. 

Walking through shoulder-high Garrison grass, Ketterhagen recounted the lessons of that summer: His fields did great, perhaps better than they have done since. He has come to think the grasses — a pasture mix of slender wheat, Garrison, clover and alfalfa — suffer with too much water. The dry year trained them to withstand the rigors of water shortages in the future. “If you are able to irrigate your crops with less water over time,” Ketterhagen said, holding his arms out and letting the silky plumes brush his palms, “I think you could create a more drought-resistant hay crop.”

There’s no quicker way to make a Colorado rancher bristle than to suggest that the water he applies to his meadows is wasted, but the science — and Ketterhagen’s observations — suggest many water users could get by with less. 

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Backhaus, an alfalfa plant in particular, set in saturated soil, will grow weak roots only half as deep as normal. The saturation can bring more disease and insects and grow a plant deficient in iron. Alfalfa is the thirstiest crop grown in western Colorado, consuming as much as 3 acre-feet of water per acre of crop each year. But it’s not uncommon for local ranchers to deliver 4 to 6 acre-feet of water, taking twice as much water from the river as their crop needs. If it doesn’t drain, that much water can suffocate the plants and they will be overtaken by sedges and other species. 

“Saturated soil actually doesn’t have oxygen in it, and so you will start seeing more of that wetland type plant growing in it,” Backhaus said. “By continually irrigating — letting the water go over a field and never stopping it — it could turn into an artificial wetland.”

Even where crops aren’t overwatered, water is lost just by transporting it from the river to the field. Copious amounts evaporate out of the ditches that line the hillsides and seep out the bottom into the loamy soil, well before the water even gets to ranchers’ fields. Ranchers know this; they open the gates long before they need the water, allowing extra time for the soil to get saturated enough to hold water. 

Along the banks, the roots of weedy tamarisk shrubs guzzle even more water, and sedges grow in depressions — a sign of moisture pooling where it isn’t needed. As Trout Unlimited’s Denison points out, flood irrigation is just 35 percent efficient, meaning nearly two-thirds of the water taken out of the river is lost, and never gets used by the grasses it is meant to nourish. The extra water is presumed to ultimately return to the river — and is counted that way when the state tallies up its usage — but Denison and others say only some of it actually does. 

Denison sees opportunity in the margins. Rather than a black-or-white struggle between agriculture and cities, a compromise could send more water downriver while keeping the farms in business. But finding it requires rethinking water entitlements, and more flexibility than existing laws allow. California has been grappling with this realization as its most senior water rights holders have begun to relinquish part of their share. “There is plenty of water to meet current needs, but we have to define what needs are, versus what a ‘right’ is,” Denison said. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers financial incentives to help ranchers upgrade equipment and adopt new, more efficient irrigation technologies. A pivot irrigation system — in which a long sprinkler pipe is set on wheels and rotates from a fixed point, leaving lush green crop circles — can potentially cut water use in half. Remote-controlled water ditch gates allow ranchers to shut off flows they otherwise leave running for months at a time because they are too far up in the mountains to visit. Drip irrigation for vegetable crops, in which small amounts of water are emitted right at a plant’s roots, is estimated to be as much as 95 percent efficient. 

Standing at the top of a meadow full of Timothy and wheat grasses, Ketterhagen points to a 12-inch PVC pipe running beside an empty 2-foot-deep dirt ditch that it replaced. He worked with advisers from the NRCS to design the pipe system and install it on part of the ranch. The pipes don’t lose water en route to the field and let Ketterhagen distribute water more evenly. Within a week, he says, his water use on that section of the ranch seemed to drop by about half.

Federal officials believe the subsidy program could successfully prod ranchers to put hundreds of billions of gallons of water back into the river and help relieve the shortages plaguing states downstream. “If every producer did that … there would be measurable gains,” said the NRCS’s Backhaus. “If 50 percent of them did it and they got a 10 percent gain, that would still be measurable.”

And yet ranchers have been slow to adopt changes. Their reasoning varies from the practical — Gunnison-area ranches often grow only one cutting of alfalfa a season, putting the $90,000 cost of some pivot irrigation systems out of reach — to the cynically ideological. “If you save it you lose it. You don’t get paid for it. You just give it up,” said Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, a national farmer advocacy group that advises Washington policymakers, repeating complaints he says he hears from some of his members. “So why would you give up water for use you don’t even believe in, for nothing?” 

The risk to long-term water rights figures prominently in ranchers’ thinking. If Ketterhagen piped every ditch on the ranch he runs, the pipes might not even carry enough water for the owners to be able to take their full allotment out of Ohio Creek. The Colorado authorities could confiscate their water rights. Ketterhagen’s employers would lose much of the value of their land, and Ketterhagen expects he’d be out of a job. Federal officials say similar concerns weigh on other ranchers, and that “use it or lose it” statutes create a strong headwind for the government’s conservation program, prompting ranchers to worry about becoming too efficient for their own good. 

“It kind of runs crosswise with the goal of our program,” said John Scott, a former district conservationist for the NRCS in Gunnison.

Many of the same ranchers who insist they need all of their water also say they could use less if their rights were protected and they benefitted from the savings. “Why shouldn’t we have a say in how those savings are used?” asked Ken Spann, one of western Colorado’s significant water users, who farms thousands of acres between Crested Butte and the town of Delta downstream. “Do I have a moral and ethical obligation as a citizen of Colorado to ensure that they can continue to expand the metropolitan area toward the Kansas line? I don’t think I do.” 

Spann would support a change in the law if it allowed him to retrieve the water he saved one year and use it the next. For now, he says, he has no good reason to use less water.

“People behave rationally,” said the University of Colorado’s Kenney. “The incentives are structured in a way that they are encouraged to act in a way that isn’t in society’s best interest.”

There is a consensus that this status quo has got to change. There is going to be less water and increasing pressure to use it efficiently. 

“It’s like I’ve got a devil and an angel on my shoulder,” Ketterhagen said. He wants to see a healthy river and applauds an effort last spring to send a surge of water to the river’s end to restore its delta. “On the one hand the Colorado River flowed all the way into the Sea of Cortez this year, it brings a tear to my eye.”

“On the other, we give them our water and what do we get in return?”

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Naveena Sadasivam contributed to this story. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter


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Killing the Colorado: How US dollars fund the western water crisis

The Sonoran Desert, where getting plants to grow is only made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Photo by  Highqueue, Wikipedia,  Public Domain

Sonoran Desert. Photo by Highqueue, Wikipedia, Public Domain

by Abrahm Lustgarten and Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica, in collaboration with Matter
June, 2015

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

State Route 87, the thin band of pavement that approaches the mostly shuttered town of Coolidge, Ariz., cuts through some of the least hospitable land in the country. The valley of red and brown sand is interrupted occasionally by rock and saguaro cactus. It’s not unusual for summer temperatures to top 116 degrees. And there is almost no water; this part of Arizona receives less than nine inches of rainfall each year. 

Then Route 87 tacks left and the dead landscape springs to life. Barren roadside is replaced by thousands of acres of cotton fields, their bright, leafy green stalks and white, puffy bolls in neat rows that unravel for miles. It’s a vision of bounty where it would be least expected. Step into the hip-high cotton shrubs, with the soft, water-soaked dirt giving way beneath your boot soles, the bees buzzing in your ears, the pungent odor of the plants in your nostrils, and you might as well be in Georgia.

Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. Greg Wuertz has been farming cotton on these fields since 1981, and before him, his father and grandfather did the same. His family is part of Arizona’s agricultural royalty. His father was a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District for nearly two decades. Wuertz has served as president of several of the most important cotton organizations in the state.

But what was once a breathtaking accomplishment — raising cotton in a desert — has become something that Wuertz pursues with a twinge of doubt chipping at his conscience. Demand and prices for cotton have plummeted, and he knows no one really needs what he supplies. More importantly, he understands that cotton comes at enormous environmental expense, a price the American West may no longer be able to afford. 

Wuertz could plant any number of crops that use far less water than cotton and fill grocery store shelves from Maine to Minnesota. But along with hundreds of farmers across Arizona, he has kept planting his fields with cotton instead. He says he has done it out of habit, pride, practicality, and even a self-deprecating sense that he wouldn’t be good at anything else. But in truth, one reason outweighs all the others: The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives to do it that he can’t afford not to. 

“Some years all of what you made came from the government,” Wuertz said. “Your bank would finance your farming operation … because they knew the support was guaranteed. They wouldn’t finance wheat, or alfalfa. Cotton was always dependable, it would always work.”

The water shortages that have brought California, Arizona and other Western states to the edge of an environmental cliff have been attributed to a historic climate event — a dry spell that experts worry could be the worst in 1,000 years. But an examination by ProPublica shows that the scarcity of water is as much a man-made crisis as a natural one, the result of decades of missteps and misapprehensions by governments and businesses as they have faced surging demand driven by a booming population. 

The federal subsidies that prop up cotton farming in Arizona are just one of myriad ways that policymakers have refused, or been slow to reshape laws to reflect the West’s changing circumstances. Provisions in early–20th-century water-use laws that not only permit but also compel farmers and others to use more water than they need are another. “Use It or Lose It” is the cynical catch phrase for one of those policies.

Western leaders also have flinched repeatedly when staring down the insatiable, unstoppable force of urban sprawl. Las Vegas authorities have spent billions of dollars inventing new ways to bring water to their ever-expanding city, yet could not cite a single development permit they had ever denied because of concerns about water.

Instead, when faced with a dwindling water supply, state and federal officials have again and again relied on human ingenuity to engineer a way out of making hard choices about using less water. But the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential. Dams and their reservoirs leak or lose billions of gallons of water to evaporation. The colossal Navajo Generating Station, which burns 22,000 tons of coal a day in large part to push water hundreds of miles across Arizona, is among the nation’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters, contributing to the very climate change that is exacerbating the drought.

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, © 2015

Few crises have been more emphatically and presciently predicted. Almost 150 years ago, John Wesley Powell, the geologist and explorer, traveled the Colorado River in an effort to gauge America’s chances for developing its arid western half. His report to Congress reached a chastening conclusion: There wasn’t enough water to support significant settlement.

For more than a century, Americans have defied Powell’s words, constructing 20 of the nation’s largest cities and a vibrant economy that, among other bounties, provides an astonishing proportion of the country’s fruit and vegetables.

For almost as long, the policies that shaped the West have struggled to match the region’s ambitions — endless growth, new industry, fertile farming and plentiful power — to its water supply.

Today, as the Colorado River enters its 15th year of drought, the nation’s largest reservoirs have been diminished to relative puddles. Power plants that depend on dams along the river face shortages and shutdowns that could send water and electricity prices skyrocketing. Many of the region’s farmers have been forced to fallow fields. 

The still-blooming cotton farms of Arizona are emblematic of the reluctance to make choices that seem obvious. The Wuertz family has received government checks just for putting cottonseeds in the ground and more checks when the price of cotton fell. They have benefited from cheap loans for cotton production that don’t have to be fully repaid if the market slumps. Most recently, the government has covered almost the entire premium on their cotton crop insurance, guaranteeing they’ll be financially protected even when natural conditions — like drought — keep them from producing a good harvest.

The payments, part of the U.S. Farm Bill, are a legacy of Dust Bowl-era programs that live on today at the urging of the national cotton lobby and the insurance industry. Similar subsidies support corn, rice, wheat and, indirectly, alfalfa — all of which also use lots of water. But in Arizona one of the driest states in the nation, it’s cotton that has received the most federal aid, tipping the balance on farmers’ decisions about what to plant. 

Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid.

Cotton growers say the subsidies don’t make them rich but help bridge the worst years of losses and keep their businesses going. And because the money is such a sure thing, they have little choice but to keep planting. 

“If you’re sitting on land and thinking of shifting, cotton is safer,” said Daniel Pearson, a senior fellow of trade policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Cotton pickers on their way to the cotton wagon, Pinal County, Arizona, 1940. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, public domain

Cotton pickers on their way to the cotton wagon, Pinal County, Arizona, 1940. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, public domain

Growing cotton in the desert, long term, may be doomed. In Arizona, the price for cotton has been in decline, and with it the overall planting of the crop. But when the price spikes, as it did dramatically in 2010, the growers get busy. One thing has yet to change: the government’s willingness to back and protect those still wanting to be cotton farmers.

For years, the federal support came through subsidies and price protection cash put directly in the farmer’s pocket. In Arizona, those payments could total tens of millions of dollars a year. Today, the government’s aid comes chiefly in the form of insurance subsidies — reliable and robust protections against losses that many farmers and their lobbyists hoped would be every bit as effective as cold cash. And so every year more than 100,000 acres of cotton still get planted, making the crop the second-most popular in the state.

Thus, at a time when farmers in Arizona, California and other Western states might otherwise adapt to a water-short world, federal farm subsidies are helping preserve a system in which the thirstiest crops are grown in some of the driest places. 

“The subsidies are distorting water usage throughout the West and providing an incentive to use more water than would be used in an open market,” said Bruce Babbitt, Arizona’s former governor and a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. 

One night last October, in the weary twilight of the cotton harvest, Greg Wuertz nestled his white Chevy pickup by the mailboxes at the head of his street. Opening a small aluminum door, he removed an envelope containing a $30,000 insurance payment on a policy paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Easy money, to be sure, but it left Wuertz uncertain.

“This kind of way of life in the West, it’s got to be different,” he said. “Water is going to be the oil of the 21st century and it should go to the best use. Right now, I don’t know if we’re doing that.”

Cotton might never have been grown in Arizona without some form of government enticement. During the Civil War, a Union blockade impounded the Southern states’ global exports. As Europe turned to new strains of cotton grown in Egypt, Arizona’s settlers, knowing the Pima Indians had long planted cotton there, thought they could replicate hot and dry North African conditions and compete. Townships reportedly offered cash to farmers willing to pioneer commercial-scale crops, according to a local historical account. Arizona’s first cotton mogul was said to be a blacksmith who abandoned his trade to take the subsidies and try farming. 

Arizona, at the time, was short on people and long on land. It was also rich in freshwater aquifers, groundwater that then seemed ample enough to irrigate vast fields and turn the desert into an oasis. 

When the United States first went to war in Europe, the demand for cotton surged. The fibers were used to reinforce truck tires and canvas airplane wings. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company bought thousands of farm acres and built a factory west of Phoenix, where a city by the name of Goodyear still stands. Farmers flocked to the state in search of opportunity.

In 1929, Wuertz’s grandfather packed the family’s belongings into their old Buick and drove down from South Dakota. He strung up tents on 160 acres, six miles outside Coolidge, and planted his first rows of cotton in the months before the Great Depression. By the 1950s, cotton farming had been woven into the state’s identity; Arizona schoolchildren learned about the “Five C’s”: cattle, copper, citrus, climate and cotton. 

Draw a sagging line today from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and every state below it grows cotton. The United States is the world’s largest exporter, with 17 states producing some eight billion pounds of cotton each year, most of which gets shipped off to Asia and Europe. 

California and Arizona are able to produce more than twice as much cotton on each acre they plant as can cotton powerhouses like Texas and Georgia because they irrigate their fields more often. But that also means that they use two to four times as much water per acre. 

From almost the beginning, Arizona’s cotton farmers understood they were withdrawing from a finite account. “There was a sense the water would run out,” said Wuertz’s father, Howard, now 89. “You could tell there was going to be an end to it, even in the 1950s.”

They’ve made it last, in large part, because as the aquifers beneath their feet were depleted, the state brought in new supplies, mainly from the Colorado River. 

Today, Wuertz’s irrigated cotton plants grow to about 4 feet tall, and are planted in even rows, about 3 feet center to center, extending for miles across furrowed fields. Every August, the bolls — pregnant pods just smaller than a golf ball — burst open, allowing their white cellulosic fiber to spring outward from hearty, splayed leaves and a small seed. Modern tractors, called cotton pickers, drive a comb through the fields, plucking the drying bolls from their stems and shooting them through a mechanical snorkel into a large basket being towed behind. Another basket, or “boll buggy,” dumps the load into a compressor, which packs the cotton into a brick 8 feet tall and 32 feet long. 

The brick is hauled through Coolidge to a local gin, where computerized modern machines roll it through a whirring conveyor, separating the seeds and fibers from their leaves and chaff. The seeds are collected for animal feed or crushed for cooking oil. The lint, cleaned and dried, is strapped into 500-pound bales and shipped off through distributors who either sell the cotton or store it in vast warehouses, waiting for prices to rise and the commodity markets to buoy the crop. 

Between land costs, labor, equipment, shipping and other expenses, Wuertz said he spends about $1,200 for every acre of cotton he harvests. His cotton has garnered about 62 cents per pound lately, so even if Wuertz gets four bales from each acre — a blockbuster harvest — he brings in about $1,240 and barely breaks even. 

Cotton farmers can cut corners to try to eke out a profit, stretching their water, cutting back on fertilizer and making fewer laps with their tractors to save on diesel. But in years when the price is lower, water is short or demand plummets, they’ll lose money. This is when they count on federal subsidies and the crop insurance programs. If Wuertz needs an advance until his cotton is bought, the government lends it to him. If he can’t sell his cotton at a profit, the government never asks for its money back. If the price falls below a base of around 52 cents, Wuertz is insured for much of the decrease in value. If his fields produce a light yield — perhaps because he couldn’t give them enough water — he’s covered for the difference in weight, too. Other crops get subsidized insurance and loans, but none, Wuertz said, are covered as thoroughly as cotton. Add it all up, and the message from the Farm Bill is clear: Grow cotton and you will not be harmed. 

“If they didn’t have insurance, it would be ugly around here,” Wuertz said. “It’d be the rope and chair. There’d be people killing themselves. It’s that bad.”

Standing in his field last fall, Wuertz cupped a tuft of cotton about the size of a softball and mused over its miraculous origins. 

He gets about one-quarter of his water from the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, the system of canals that brings water from the Colorado River, some 230 miles away. The rest comes from a federally built reservoir nearby called San Carlos Lake, which, with the drought, has been diminished to little more than a bed of mud.

“There comes a time when you have to leave some to keep the fish alive,” Wuertz said wryly.

Wuertz loves to farm cotton. Fingering the plant’s thorny, rose-like leaves, he explains the difference between hirsutum, what Arizonans call Upland, or short staple cotton used for everyday clothes, and barbadense, the long-fiber Pima cotton used in high-end sheets and expensive textiles. He is stocky, wearing jeans, cowhide boots, a blue-striped button-down shirt and a broad-rimmed white cowboy hat that shields his face from view as he talks. Every 10 days, he explains, he releases his ditch gates and floods the furrows, using an irrigation technique hundreds of years old, until the roots of his plants are submerged ankle deep. If he were to do it all at once, the water Wuertz spends to produce one acre of cotton would stand 4 feet deep. The ditches flow with hundreds of millions of gallons of water every year. 

For the last third of a century, Wuertz was supplied prodigious amounts of water, largely because Arizona was pushing its farmers to use as much as they could. The state’s run on water began in the 1970s, when Arizona planned its mega canal in order to lay claim to its full share of water from the Colorado River. The canal would bring more water than the state needed at the time, ultimately supplying future urban expansion as its cities and economy grew. But in the short term, Arizona had to justify the canal’s $4.4 billion federally subsidized construction cost by demonstrating to Congress that it had a plan to put all that water to use right away. 

The state’s aquifers had been drawn down so much that, in places, the land had begun to settle above them. The canal project looked like a way to wean Arizona’s farmers off ground water, using river water to replace it. It looked good on paper until 1993, when the Central Arizona Project canal was completed. The cost of construction plus the cost of the power needed to pump the water made CAP water more expensive than what farmers could pump cheaply from underground. In a bind, state and federal officials slashed the price — subsidizing nearly half the true cost of the water and charging farmers just a fraction of its value to get them to use more of it.

For a while, the plan worked. Farmers made the switch, using government-subsidized canals and inexpensive power to nourish their farms for another generation. But the farms were little more than a place holder in the state’s grand plans. It was understood that as cities grew, farming in Arizona would have to change. Much of the cotton, alfalfa, wheat and citrus would eventually need to be grown somewhere else as the water from CAP was switched to supply urban areas.

“That was the deal that was struck to induce agriculture to go out of business,” said Jon Kyl, the former three-term senator and four-term congressman from Arizona. 

But the transition hasn’t been completed, in part owing to the farm subsidies that have delayed change. And now the state’s intricate water supply plan is beginning to crumble. 

Drought has diminished the Colorado’s flow so much that federal officials — who control water deliveries on the southern half of the Colorado — now predict they will have to cut the state’s water deliveries through the CAP canal as soon as next year, potentially eliminating much of the farmers’ share. Meanwhile, loopholes in laws designed to conserve aquifers for exactly this situation have allowed housing developers and others to draw down resources that were supposed to be protected.

The water needs of Arizona’s cities are surging. The state’s population — less than two million in 1970 — has ballooned to more than three times that and is expected to reach 11 million within the next 30 years, turning the state into what the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University has described as a “megalopolis.” 

Last year Arizona officials forecast the state could run out of water within a few decades.

“The shortages projected hitting municipal customers are really in the 2026 time frame,” said Thomas Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, as if a 10-year cushion was supposed to be reassuring. 

Land use statistics show that acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona have decreased over the past few decades, and since 1985 they’ve dropped by more than half in the area around Phoenix. The Wuertz family sold a chunk of its fields to home developers in 2009. 

But the patterns of agricultural water use make clear that it’s not just how many acres of land are planted there, but what is grown on them.

Cotton’s domestic benefits are questionable. After a price spike in 2010, production of cotton surged while global demand — and prices along with it — plummeted. Today, China, the world’s largest cotton producer, has enough cotton in warehouses to stop farming for a year. And Texas, the U.S.’s largest producer, harvests enough to cover more than one third of U.S. exports alone, relying largely on natural rainfall, not irrigation, to do it. Wuertz’s cotton — produced with Arizona’s precious water — is likely to get stacked in cavernous warehouses until the marketing cooperative he uses finds new customers. If Arizona stopped farming cotton tomorrow, Wuertz said, he’s not sure anyone would notice. 

This underscores questions about whether continuing to grow these water-hogging crops at their current levels is in the public interest, and whether such an important pillar of U.S. economic policy as the Farm Bill should continue to champion them. 

“The basic question is how are you going to manage your water supply? And we have managed it in a way that has subsidized agriculture,” said John Bredehoeft the former manager of the western water program for the U.S. Geological Survey, referring not just to subsidies for crops like cotton, but also the support for crops like alfalfa that are grown as feed. “If you look at the fact that half of the water use in the West is to raise cows — can you say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a water shortage in the West?’” 

First established as a New Deal program to rescue farmers during the Great Depression, today’s unwieldy version of the U.S. Farm Bill wraps everything from food stamps to sugar imports into one 357-page, nearly $1 trillion law. 

The measure allots about $130 billion over 10 years to protect farmers against price drops, bad weather and bad luck and to insure them against virtually any scenario that gets in the way of turning a profit. 

No American law has more influence on what, where and when farmers decide to plant. And by extension, no federal policy has a greater ability to directly influence how water resources are consumed in the American West. 

Until this year, the bill doled out direct subsidies for a full menu of crops. Every farmer planting commodities, including those planting cotton, got $40,000 just for signing up. 

Then there are the steeply discounted business loans, which have a measurable impact on what farmers decide to plant. In many cases, to be eligible for these subsidies one year, a farmer has to have previously planted the crop — a basic component of the bill’s architecture that gives farmers an incentive to maintain “base” levels of acreage. In an analysis, the Congressional Budget Office found that the subsidies don’t just maintain the status quo, they also foster more planting, and more water use. The USDA’s marketing loans alone, for example, led to a 10 percent increase in the amount of cotton farmers planted — compared to 2.5 percent increase in the amount of wheat, and a 1.5 percent increase in the amount of soybeans produced — in part because the subsidies not only make cotton a safer bet, they also make it more competitive against alternative crops. Banks lend cotton growers money they wouldn’t lend for other crops, largely because they know the government will stand behind them. 

All told, Wuertz estimates that nearly one-fifth of his income is derived from Farm Bill aid, and cotton has almost always been his largest and most important crop. According to USDA statistics compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the Wuertz family — including his brother’s and father’s farms — has received more than $5.3 million in farm bill subsidies since 1995, a portion of which may have been targeted for efficient irrigation equipment, Wuertz said.

The Farm Bill has been used in the past to steer environmental policy. It provides for withholding money, for example, from farms that would contribute to soil erosion or the destruction of wetlands. In North Dakota, where farmers were tearing out grasslands to plant corn for ethanol production, the law contains “sodbuster” provisions withholding insurance benefits from those who rip up lands the government wants to conserve. 

The Farm Bill contains $56 billion for conservation, funding an effort to encourage farmers to reduce their water consumption by using more-modern equipment as well as measures meant to conserve land. Another section of the bill is aimed at saving energy. But the law’s farming incentives run counter to its far more modest water conservation initiatives. 

“There is a real disconnect between that and what the commodity and crop insurance program are promoting, and that’s a basic conflict,” said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director at National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, based in Washington, D.C. 

The Farm Bill’s authors have sometimes factored in environmental concerns in specific places and tailored incentives to affect them, Hoefner said. But when it comes to cotton, the bill does not consider the related water use, and it does not distinguish between the places where it is grown. Instead, the money corresponds roughly to the amount of cotton harvested; Arizona, which ranks in the middle in terms of its cotton production, also ranks 10th among the 17 states that receive cotton aid. California, which ranked third for overall cotton production in 2013, also ranks third in subsidies over the last 20 years according to data collected by the Environmental Working Group. It’s in those places that the incentives created by the subsidies are most in conflict with the government’s aid to conserve water. 

“Trying to get USDA to break down the silos is difficult,” Hoefner noted.

The Congressional Budget Office attacked this disconnect in 2006, urging the USDA to stop supporting agricultural products that act to “impede the transfer of water resources to higher value uses,” and “encourage the use of water.” Analysts advised the USDA to enhance its conservation programs, align its subsidies with those conservation efforts, and stop paying for infrastructure that makes water artificially cheap. 

Every six years or so Congress has the opportunity to revisit its Farm Bill policies and update the bill. When Congress reauthorized it in 2014, however, lawmakers changed, but did not retreat in their support for cotton farming in the Southwest, despite growing awareness of the persistent water crisis in the Colorado River basin. 

Instead, legislators allowed the cotton industry to write its own future. Faced with international trade pressures and allegations that subsidies — like payments triggered by price drops — were distorting the market, U.S. cotton trade associations lobbied to ramp up the USDA’s insurance program. 

Rather than paying direct subsidies to cotton farmers, starting this year the USDA will use taxpayer dollars to buy farmers additional crop insurance. Policies that once covered up to around 70 percent of farmers’ losses can now be supplemented with new coverage covering up to 90 percent, cushioning the shallowest of losses. The lucrative marketing loan program that serves as a sort of price guarantee also remains in place.

Right now, though, the stubbornly low price of cotton is making Wuertz nervous that the new, enhanced insurance program won’t deliver the same revenues as the old direct subsidies. He’s temporarily cut back, then, planting less cotton this year and only the most valuable strains. 

Still, the more than 161,000 acres of cotton that were planted in Arizona in 2013 accounted for almost one out of every five acres of the state’s irrigated farmland. Many believe the insurance program is likely to keep the practice going because it limits most — if not all — downsides, encouraging farmers to take big chances with limited resources. 

“If I knew my 401k was guaranteed to not fall below 85 percent of its current level and there was no limit on the upside,” said Craig Cox a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, who was a former staff member for the Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, “my portfolio would be a lot riskier than it is.”

If the Farm Bill reshuffled its incentives, water policy experts say, farmers in states that draw on the Colorado River could reduce their water usage substantially, adding large amounts back into the region’s budget.

According to research by the Pacific Institute, simply irrigating alfalfa fields less frequently, stressing the plant and slightly reducing its yield, could decrease the amount of water needed across the seven Colorado River basin states by roughly 10 percent. If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.

There’s little financial reason not to do this. The government is willing to consider spending huge amounts to get new water supplies, including building billion-dollar desalinization plants to purify ocean water. It would cost a tiny fraction of that to pay farmers in Arizona and California more to grow wheat rather than cotton, and for the cost of converting their fields. The billions of dollars of existing subsidies already allocated by Congress could be redirected to support those goals, or spent, as the Congressional Budget Office suggested, on equipment and infrastructure that helps farmers use less water.

“There is enough water in the West. There isn’t any pressing need for more water, period,” Babbitt said. “There are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.” 

Today Wuertz lives with the deep uncertainty that comes with a transition he can no longer control. He told his son, Thomas, 24, that there is no future in cotton farming. He says that if Arizona farmers keep planting cotton, farming itself may be in jeopardy. But knowing that and acting on it have so far been different beasts, and Wuertz finds himself resistant to change. He tried growing more cantaloupe but had difficulty finding buyers who would take the time-sensitive crop before it rotted. He’s planting some acres he used to plant with cotton with alfalfa instead, but that uses even more water, though it commands a premium price. 

In the end, Wuertz said he doesn’t know how to grow other plants as well as he knows cotton. He’s been a gin director, president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, head of the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council. His identity is wrapped up in those prickly bolls out in his fields.

“When I quit cotton all of that goes away. Ninety percent of my life is gone. It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he said. “I’m just not ready to do that yet. And it’s not to say I won’t get there.”

Creative Commons

This story, part of a special project on America’s Western drought by ProPublica, was co-published with Matter, a new digital magazine on Medium.


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