© 2023 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some farmers are skeptical about a payment plan to get them to use less water

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The White House announced a historic deal earlier this year to help keep America's two biggest reservoirs from drying up. It's paying cities, farmers and other water users a lot of money to take less water from the Colorado River. But in the place that uses more water than any other, there's deep skepticism about whether the plan will work long term. KUNC's Alex Hager reports.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Farmer John Hawk steps out of his white pickup truck and pulls on a ball cap to keep the baking summer sun out of his eyes. He's looking out over neatly divided squares of green while a tractor works the dirt nearby.

JOHN HAWK: It's a business. It's an industry that is, you know, in my case, four generations, going on five.

HAGER: We're in California's Imperial Valley, which produces about $3 billion each year in crops and livestock. And the valley uses more water than any other farm district or city along the shrinking Colorado River. Climate change is putting less water in, but people have not done enough to take less water out. When states and the feds look for ways to cut back, this is an obvious place.

HAWK: Do we need to conserve? Absolutely. We need to conserve, but we need to be paid for the conservation.

HAGER: Water law in the West says that people who started using it first will be the last to face cutbacks in times of shortage. It's a system that mostly excludes Native Americans who were here before anybody else. But it leaves Imperial farmers with some of the most legally untouchable water rights in the West. So farmers like Hawk say the valley's legal rights mean other places should be on the hook to conserve water first.

HAWK: Don't crowd to the front of the line. It doesn't work, and you'll get a fight out of me. I'll grab you by the neck and say, listen, pal, you pay your dues just like our forefathers did.

HAGER: But if you do it fairly, Hawk says the rest is relatively simple. Want farmers to adopt new technologies that use less water? Pull out your wallet.

HAWK: We could use drip or use sprinklers, but you got to remember that the cost goes way up in a crop. And so how are we compensated for doing that?

HAGER: In May, the federal government said it would pay farmers to use less water. That could look like methods farmer Alex Jack is already using. Jack is walking into a field of alfalfa hay, watered through drip irrigation, which waters the notoriously thirsty crop more efficiently.

ALEX JACK: It's like farming with an eye dropper. It's just incredible preciseness for each plant.

HAGER: But it takes gear that isn't cheap.

JACK: If you go back and get your grandma's car that had a big V8 in it and everything else, not very good gas mileage, it was big, made out of steel, very heavy, clunky - nowadays, you look at that car and think, oh, my God. Well, unfortunately, a lot of farmers are still driving their grandmas' cars, so to speak, when it comes to irrigation.

HAGER: It's not clear yet exactly how much money is in the three-year federal deal, but it could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to help upgrade equipment. Tina Shields works at the Imperial Irrigation District, which represents the farmers and decides how the money gets spent. She says even a big check would not solve the problem overnight.

TINA SHIELDS: You can't make everybody happy. I mean, if you have 10 farmers, you have 10 different opinions on what the best program is because they're going to advocate for what works for their business model.

HAGER: Three years from now, the agreement to pay farmers to use less water will run out, and the Imperial Valley will still have the same water rights it does now. Those rights will give them a lot of leverage in negotiations over how to share the Colorado River going forward. Those negotiations will likely only get more difficult as climate change shrinks a river that already can't supply everyone who wants to use it.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager in the Imperial Valley, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alex Hager
A special thanks to those who helped us unlock $50,000 this past Giving Tuesday. If you haven't supported the news reporting of this station yet, now is the best time to give. Support your favorite community public station today.