The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Drought or No Drought, Big Agriculture Guzzles Water for Free

Oct 10, 2022

An historic drought has been plaguing nearly 20 western states, covering close to half the land area of the continental U.S. Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the U.S., has been declining for decades and it is now at 27% of its full capacity—its lowest-ever level since the lake was created by the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. The second-largest reservoir in the U.S., Lake Powell, has receded even more, to 24% of its capacity.

The river that feeds these two reservoirs, the Colorado River, is also drying—its flow having declined by about 20% from 20 years ago, at the beginning of the current drought. At this rate, Lake Mead and Lake Powell may even become “dead pools”, meaning their water may stop flowing downstream. That, in turn, means the Colorado River would stop supplying the water and electricity that at least 40 million people rely on—not to mention the agricultural products that are shipped from this region to all parts of the U.S.

Corporations Don’t Conserve Water

Authorities in the seven states that get water from the Colorado River say, under these conditions, they have to impose water conservation measures on residents. The problem is, residents actually use only a small fraction, about 8%, of the water drawn from the Colorado River—while as much as 80% of it goes to agriculture. And authorities are suggesting no measures to reduce the amount of water used by agriculture, especially by big corporate farms, where the lion’s share of the water goes. On the contrary, the federal government has actually been encouraging farmers to use more water!

In fact, for many decades, Big Agriculture in the Southwest, especially in the deserts of Southern California and Arizona, has relied on huge amounts of water being transported from far away, and practically for free—courtesy of federal and state governments.

Government Subsidizes Corporate Farms

Thanks to this very generous supply of water, big corporate farms have grown highly profitable crops which, otherwise, would not grow in a desert. One example is cotton. In Arizona, for example, tens of thousands of acres of desert farmland are still being used for growing cotton, even though cotton prices have gone down. But cotton growers continue to grow it, thanks to huge federal subsidies.

First, the federal government provides cheap—almost free—water to cotton growers through a well-developed water system that carries water from the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away. The federal government also subsidizes loans for cotton growers, as well as crop insurance premiums, all of which, in the end, ensure the profits of not only growers, but banks and insurance companies as well—all paid for with taxpayer money!

Between 1995 and 2015, for example, Arizona cotton growers got more than 1.1 billion dollars in cotton subsidies. But it’s not just Arizona. In California, cotton subsidies amounted to more than 3 billion dollars during the same time period.

And it’s not just cotton. California’s Imperial Valley near the Mexican border, a desert, is home to very large corporate farms. The favorite crops of these big corporate farms are also some of the most water-guzzling crops, such as almonds, pistachios, and alfalfa. Most of these crops are exported. California grows more than 80% of the world’s almonds, which require enormous amounts of water when grown in the desert. As for alfalfa, which is used as animal feed—so much of it is exported that commentators have dubbed alfalfa exports “exports of water to China and the Middle East”—at a time when households are asked to cut down the use of water, and pay more for fruits and vegetables, all supposedly because of the drought!

Cheap Water at Taxpayers’ Expense

It would be impossible for big agriculture to grow these crops in such massive amounts, if it were not for California’s two huge water distribution projects, the Central Valley Project, built by the federal government in the 1930s, and the California State Water Project, built by the state government in the 1960s. Thanks to these two big projects, which authorities have built, and expanded, at the expense of taxpayers and workers, big agricultural companies get so much cheap water from the government that they even sell part of it to other farms, sometimes even back to state agencies, for 10, and even 20 times the price they pay for it!

Nothing has slowed down this greedy orgy of Big Agriculture, and the complicity of federal and state governments—not even a drought of historic proportions.