House panel votes to cut West's water subsidies

May 02, 1991|By William J. Eaton | William J. Eaton,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a major breakthrough, the House Interior Committee overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday that would bar delivery of government-subsidized water to large farms in the Western United States.

The compromise measure, which breezed through the committee on a 38-2 vote, would phase out "double subsidies" by requiring farmers to choose between low-cost federal water and government payments for growing wheat, rice, cotton and other surplus crops.

The final water subsidy provisions of the bill were worked out by Representative George Miller, D-Calif., acting chairman of the committee, and Representative Richard H. Lehman, D-Calif., who represents a farming area in California.

The compromise -- designed to enforce an existing 960-acre limit on farms that receive irrigation subsidies while providing safeguards for smaller farmers who work together and whose combined holdings go over that limit -- was accepted by voice vote.

In the past, lawmakers from rural areas in the West have fought fiercely against proposals to restrict the availability of irrigation subsidies. The committee action, however, reflected current political sentiment in the House, where proponents of limits on low-cost water have a strong majority behind them.

The bill is considered certain to pass the full House in the near future, and the Miller-Lehman agreement is expected to improve its prospects in the Senate. A similar measure that lacked the safeguards for smaller farmers was approved by the House last year but died in the Senate after then-Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., was able to block a vote.

The 960-acre limit was enacted in 1982, but Mr. Miller said that huge farms and agribusiness companies were able to continue to receive federally subsidized water by dividing their holdings into trusts and partnerships composed of multiple 960-acre units.

Under the new compromise, no new trusts could be created, and existing trusts would have to pay full cost for federal water after a three-year transition period. After nine years, these trusts would be required to disband.

Mr. Lehman said that "safe harbors" would be established to allow individual farmers to make agreements with other farmers to share costs of spraying pesticides or buying expensive equipment even if their combined holdings exceeded 960 acres. Similar agreements between family members would be allowed if they met prescribed guidelines and were approved by the secretary of the interior.

"This restores the integrity of the program," Mr. Miller told reporters after the committee action. "This closes the loopholes. . . . All the room for shenanigans to get around the acreage limitation has been eliminated."

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